TORONTO -- The Maple Leafs freed Jake Gardiner from the AHL and the 22-year-old calm and cool defender helped free his teammates from an 0-3-2 slump as Toronto kicked off the second half of the season with a win.
Gardiner wasn't the sole reason the Maple Leafs dumped the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 to send rookie Cory Conacher and his 62 family members and friends in the stands home disappointed to nearby Burlington, Ont. But Gardiner was noticeable with his skating, his passing and his willingness to lug the puck.
But more on Gardiner's return later. There were just so many subplots to a game that also had the backdrop of the annual March general managers meeting during the day at the neighbouring NHL offices in Toronto.
Most of those GMs stuck around to watch the game from an Air Canada Centre suite with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. What they saw early in the third period was Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul nail Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman with a blindside hit to the head just outside Toronto's blue-line.
Lupul received a two-minute penalty for an illegal check to the head. But the hit appeared nasty enough that NHL chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan may follow up with some supplementary discipline before the Maple Leafs visit the Sabres in Buffalo on Thursday.
"I did not realize I got him in the head," Lupul said. "I saw he was hurt. By no means did I go and try to hit him in the head."
Meanwhile, for the second straight game since he returned from his broken forearm, Lupul scored Toronto's first goal. His linemate Nazem Kadri set up Lupul en route to a three-assist game.
Kadri himself entered the game with some turmoil surrounding him. There was a warrant issued on Wednesday for his uncle in connection with an illegal gambling operation in Stouffville, Ont., that was raided on Super Bowl Sunday.
Warrants for Hiesam Kadri, 41, of London, Ont. and two others were issued. There also were two other arrests made in connection on Wednesday. All face charges related to bookmaking and organized criminal activity.
Carlyle admires Kadri
But the bad news didn't hinder Kadri on the ice, which didn't surprise Randy Carlyle. The Maple Leafs head coach has admired Kadri's ability to shake off a bad shift or bad game this year, or even when the coaching staff has had to point out his mistakes.
Whatever he must have been feeling in relation to his uncle's problems, there was no evidence in his play. He does have a nonchalant demeanour.
And so does Gardiner. He was out a month with a concussion just prior to the Maple Leafs opening training camp in mid-January. He didn't look sharp and was subsequently demoted after two games, even though he played 75 last season and made the NHL all-rookie team.
When Gardiner was recalled he was entering a nervous time in Toronto's season. They had stopped skating. They had been standing still too much. They stopped moving the puck with efficiency out of their own end. On top of all of this, Gardiner's agent Ben Hankinson sent out a #freejakegardner tweet last week after a loss to further shine the spotlight on his client.
But the controversy failed to unsettle Gardiner, who played his first NHL game in 55 days. Carlyle started him alongside his old partner John-Michael Liles and two played well.
Gardiner makes a difference
Kadri noticed a difference with his old Marlies teammate back with the Maple Leafs. Kadri admitted that he had become frustrated with the poor puck movement out of Toronto's end during its slide.
"An ability to skate and move the puck," Kadri said, when asked what sort of difference Gardiner made.
Gardiner is a man of few words. He said he gets his relaxed nature from his parents, John and Jill. John was in the printing business and his mom ran the household. Plus, he was warned about how crazy it can get when you play for the Maple Leafs.
"People talked to me before about how it will be in Toronto with all the distractions," Gardiner said. "I knew what it was going to be like.
And there were enough distractions on Wednesday to last a season. But for one night anyway, Gardiner, Kadri and the Maple Leafs survived the white noise, as Carlyle likes to call it, to snatch a much-needed two points.
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