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Rielly to return for Maple Leafs against Lightning

Defenseman has been out since Jan. 12 with fractured foot

by Dave McCarthy / Independent Correspondent

TORONTO -- Morgan Rielly will return to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; TVAS, TSN4, SUN, NHL.TV).

"I'm a little nervous for sure but it's also exciting to get back," Rielly said following the Maple Leafs morning skate Tuesday. "It's also very serious though, at this time of year you want to win, collect points and prepare yourself for [The Stanley Cup] playoffs. I'm excited and nervous but for the most part I'm just looking forward to getting back."

The defenseman, who has been out since Jan. 12 with a fractured foot, practiced in full on Monday while paired with Cody Ceci. He also took part in power play and penalty killing drills.

"He's a big part of our team in all facets of the game. It's nice seeing him back out there and fully moving," forward Mitchell Marner said. "He brings a whole other confidence level for our team and settles us down in the defensive end as well."

The Maple Leafs have gone 11-9-3 without Rielly in the lineup. They went 0-2-1 on their three-game California road trip last week, leaving them three points ahead of the Florida Panthers for third in the Atlantic Division.

"Of course, he hasn't played in quite some time," coach Sheldon Keefe said, "so it's important for us to be patient and give him time to re-acclimatize. He's excited to get back having had a lot of practice time, and I know he's excited to get back. The on-ice contributions will be there but he brings a lot to our group off the ice at this time of year as well with his energy and his passion. All those things will serve us well.

"The biggest thing for me is Rielly's voice and his presence around the team and on the bench. We don't have a lot of guys who are vocal ones, who push you and get you going. I'd say Rielly and Jake Muzzin are the two guys who are the most vocal for us, pushing our team and their personalities are such that they keep it light too and keep everyone relax."

Video: SJS@TOR: Rielly rips shot past Jones' glove

Muzzin, who has been out since Feb. 25 with a broken hand, skated on his own after practice but there is no timeline for his return.

After Toronto scored three goals in its past three games, Keefe shuffled the lines at practice, most notably splitting up center Auston Matthews and right wing Marner, who had played together since late December. Matthews was between left wing Zach Hyman and right wing William Nylander, while center John Tavares was between left wing Kasperi Kapanen and Marner.

"Changes are made to get results. With the type of skill and talent we have here, we have a mixture of guys that can lead to a lot of different combinations," Tavares said. "We want to be a four-line deep hockey team with each line contributing. We need to go out there now and produce more opportunities and get back to the way we're capable of playing."

The Maple Leafs have been inconsistent the past three weeks. They went 1-3-0 from Feb. 16 to 22 highlighted by lopsided losses to the Buffalo Sabres (5-2), the Pittsburgh Penguins (5-2) and the Carolina Hurricanes (6-3), in which emergency backup goalie Dave Ayres played the final 28:41, making eight saves. Toronto responded by going 3-0-0 from Feb. 25-29 before the California trip last week.

"We definitely recognize our results out west are not acceptable at this time of the year especially. We know what we're in for here in terms of the battle and how we have to perform back on home ice," Keefe said. "Our guys know what's at stake but they're a little confused themselves as to why we've been so hot and cold. We're looking to be able to replicate more of what we've done when things have gone well. For me it starts and ends with how engaged we are, how hard we work and how competitive we are. When we do that it's amazing how much better everything looks and how things fall into place but we've got to work."

Marner said, "It's been a roller-coaster ride the last couple weeks with how we've been playing. It's something we're not happy with and have to change but those weeks are done with now, we've got a new opponent tomorrow and it's a big matchup so we'll have to be ready for it."

Prior to practice on Monday, the Maple Leafs took their team picture on the ice at Scotiabank Arena. Keefe said he challenged his team after the picture was taken, telling them with 13 games remaining, they have an opportunity to make the picture mean something positive.

"It's one thing to be in the picture but the reason we take it is to have a memory. You want to look back on it and be proud of the group and remember the individuals who fought to get us where we want to be," Keefe said. "That's what the picture represents, and we have a chance to make this season memorable." 

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