TORONTO - Sixty games into the NHL season, Randy Carlyle and the Toronto Maple Leafs are back to square one.
The Leafs resumed practising last week following their Olympic break. They open the post-break part of the season Thursday night visiting the New York Islanders, which will be their first contest since a 3-1 home win over Vancouver on Feb. 8.
With so much time between games, Carlyle has taken the approach in these practices that he did back in September when Toronto opened training camp.
"We hope it (break) helps everybody but again, you don't know until you start playing the games," Carlyle said following Tuesday's session at MasterCard Centre. "What we've tried to do is simulate a little bit of a mini training camp here and try to get our players back in top form that we can hit the ice playing the way we left the ice.
"We've tried to throw in a lot of compete drills . . . more of the 1-on-1, more of that challenging one another to battle for pucks, to battle in the defensive zone. Hopefully that pays dividends for our hockey club here down the stretch."
The NHL schedule officially resumes Wednesday night with the Carolina Hurricanes facing the Buffalo Sabres.
The Olympic break came at an inopportune time for Toronto (32-22-6, 70 points), which headed into the Sochi Games on a sparkling 11-2-1 run. The Leafs are tied with Montreal for fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, one point behind third-place Tampa Bay and eight behind second-place Boston.
Pittsburgh (40-15-3, 83 points) leads the way.
The Leafs would appear to be catching a break Thursday night. They'll face an Islanders team that's minus centres John Tavares (season-ending knee injury) and Frans Nielsen (hand).
Tavares, New York's captain, was hurt playing for Canada at Sochi. He won't go under the knife but will require eight weeks of rehabilitation.
Tavares' absence is huge as he's NHL's third-leading scorer with 66 points (24 goals, 42 assists). Nielsen, New York's third-leading scorer with 43 points (18 goals, 25 assists), suffered a broken hand after slashed by Colorado's Erik Johnson in the Islanders' final game before the break.
Toronto linemates Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk didn't practise Tuesday. The American Olympians returned from Sochi on Monday and Carlyle will make sure both get sufficient rest.
"We possibly could be giving more of an opportunity for (Kessel and van Riemsdyk) to get a little bit more rest once we get our games going again," he said. "We understand they've been taxed with a situation over there. They've been on the ice pretty much every day since Feb. 8 and they're deserved of some sort of a break.
Toronto's other Olympian, Russian forward Nikolai Kulemin, has resumed practising.
Should Leafs forward Dave Bolland (severed ankle tendon) be able to play against the Islanders, Toronto would feature a healthy lineup for the first time this season.
"I think we're excited at the possibility of having our full lineup that we envisioned on Day 1 of the season for, I believe, the first time all year," said veteran forward Joffrey Lupul. "That's exciting for us.
"The break came at a time when we really were starting to play our best hockey of the year and get all of our bodies healthy for the most part. I know a lot of other teams probably got healthy throughout the break too."
Kessel (31 goals, 34 assists) and van Riemsdyk (24 goals, 23 assists) are Toronto's leading scorers, having played 60 and 58 games, respectively. But standing sixth is centre Tyler Bozak, the team's top faceoff man who has 12 goals and 20 assists despite being limited to 36 games due to injury.
For the six-foot-one, 195-pound Bozak, the break came at a good time.
"For a guy like me that's small in stature and loses a little weight during the season, definitely," he said. "Any time off with the injuries I've had if you can get some time off to rehab and rest it will help me for sure."
While many Leafs headed south over the break, forward David Clarkson remained in Toronto. But Carlyle said that certainly hasn't hurt the rugged forward's play during practice.
"The one thing about Clarkie is over the break he didn't go away like a lot of the players," Carlyle said. "He had some things to do at home and he worked out and maintained a high level of conditioning and it shows here in this mini-camp."
Suspensions and injuries have limited Clarkson to just four goals and six assists in 39 games with the Leafs. Clarkson, a Toronto native, signed a seven-year, US$36.75-million deal this off-season after seven campaigns with New Jersey, where he had a career-high 30 goals in 2011-12.
"In sports you've got to blank some stuff out, whether it's what people are saying or what's going on," Clarkson said of his roller-coaster first season in Toronto. "As an individual and player you go through ups and downs but it's how you come out of it and how you handle it.
"You work hard through those times to get stronger and better. These last 20 games-plus are what we're all here for. We've got to come out and play the way we can as a team."