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Dermott, Gardiner getting closer to Maple Leafs return

Toronto has allowed 43 goals in 11 games without two top defensemen

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner each continued to progress Friday toward returning to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup.

Dermott practiced for the first time since sustaining a shoulder injury Feb. 27. He wore a red non-contact jersey but participated in drills and stayed on the ice the entire session. Gardiner, who has been out of the lineup since Feb. 25 with a back injury, skated before practice.

"The trainers here have been working me pretty hard in the gym," Dermott said. "Honestly, I was out there skating and felt less tired than I would in a regular practice. I don't know if I'm in better shape or I'm just excited to be back out there with the guys, but I feel good."

The Maple Leafs are 5-5-1 in 11 games without Gardiner and Dermott. They've allowed an NHL-high 43 goals since Feb. 28, including 28 goals in their past six games (2-4-0).

Coach Mike Babcock was encouraged to see the two defensemen make strides to get back in the lineup.

"Obviously it's a huge deal for us," he said. "The back end, there's no question about it, those guys are both good puck movers and good players and we miss them. The National Hockey League, you can talk about all the positions you want, but you need a goalie and you need [defensemen]."

Toronto (44-25-5) is in third place in the Atlantic Division, six points behind the Boston Bruins with eight regular-season games remaining. The Maple Leafs host the New York Rangers at Scotiabank Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SN1, SNO, MSG, NHL.TV). 

Dermott said it has been difficult watching his teammates struggle but stopped short of suggesting his presence alone would have led to a different result.

Video: Johnston on Montour-Dahlin, Maple Leafs rebounding

"The boys have been going through a little bit of a tough patch here, but whether I was in or not, I really don't know how much affect it would have," he said. "It gives me more incentive though to want to come back, be strong and ready to go and try to help out as much as I can."

The next step for Dermott is evaluating how his shoulder responds to practice, but he said the intention is not to return until he feels fully recovered.

"Probably a couple of more practices, just seeing how it feels day-to-day and kind of working off that," he said. "I'm still working hard on my therapy and trying to make sure I'm nice and strong before I come back. 

"You know how you feel when you're good and 100 percent. The trainers are taking good care of me and making sure I'm at that point before I come back and not risking anything. If that means I take another couple of days, miss a couple of more games, then fine. But it's just about making sure I'm 100 percent."

Prior to practice Friday, Dermott skated with Gardiner, who has missed the past 12 games. It was the first time Gardiner, who has 29 points (two goals, 27 assists) in 60 games this season, had been seen skating since his injury.

"He's moving really well," Dermott said. "I've been able to skate with him for the last little bit and I've seen him progress exponentially so I'm excited to have him back hopefully not that much long after when I come back," Dermott said. "Jake's a big part of our team."

The final step for Dermott, who has 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) in 60 games, is testing the shoulder with contact.

"I've been working every day, working hard to make sure that I'm not tentative," Dermott said. "You want to gain that confidence from having some good practices with the guys where if you're going up head to head against a guy and you're going to take a nice hit, you don't have to be worried about it."

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