NASHVILLE – His career as a Nashville Predator was over in less than thirty minutes.
Not exactly bursting with sentimental feelings, Matthew Lombardi makes an odd return to the state of Tennessee on Thursday night. The 29-year-old signed a three-year contract with the Predators in the summer of 2010, but suffered a concussion in just his second game with the club, never to play in Music City again.
"All in all, it was a pretty weird year to say the least," Lombardi told the Leaf Report, ahead of Thursday's matchup at Bridgestone Arena. "I did have a bit of an experience there, but nothing too emotional or anything like that."
It was over after 29 minutes and 39 seconds, 34 shifts to be exact.
Four nights after his Nashville debut – a 4-1 over Anaheim – Lombardi would suffer a concussion at the United Center in Chicago, his career with the Predators over before it started. His health and future very much in question, Nashville saw little choice but to move the Montreal native in the summer, sending him to Toronto for Brett Lebda (salary relief) and Robert Slaney in a package that also included Cody Franson.
Against all odds and expectation, Lombardi triumphantly returned to start the regular season, scoring the shorthanded winner in a 2-0 opening night victory over Montreal. It was a remarkable early peak on a comeback that has seen its fair share of expected waves along the way. Without a concrete training camp to fall back on – he played in only one exhibition game – Lombardi has been forced to shake off the rust of a year-long absence on the fly, a tall task in any league let alone the NHL.
"You don't just turn the switch on," he said. "I wish it was that easy. It's not. It's a good league obviously. It's different for everybody, but I feel like I'm making progress."
The Leafs have seen flashes of the player who scored 19 goals and 53 points with Phoenix in 2009-2010. They've seen him utilize what is unquestionably his greatest asset – speed – more and more often and at more advantageous times. Exploiting that speed and the opportunities it creates will help to grow an offensive game that remains hidden beneath the surface; Lombardi has just two goals and six points through the first 18 games.
"I definitely feel like I want to contribute," said Lombardi, who has gone the last nine games without a goal, but chipped in with an assist on Tuesday night. "Obviously hasn't been there consistently this year, but I definitely want to build back into that. I feel like I can still do that. It's just getting back to being consistent and helping the team."
The Leafs could certainly use his help.
With firepower beyond Phil Kessel (13 goals) and Joffrey Lupul (9 goals) in very short supply and Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur suddenly down with injuries, the Leafs are hunting for goals anywhere they can find it. While not expected to chip in consistently, some production from the bottom two lines would help to balance the waters offensively. Over the last nine games, the bottom six forward group has managed to create just three goals, two by Joey Crabb and one from Mike Komisarek, initiated by the efforts of Lombardi and Crabb.
While he's not yet returned to past levels of performance, Lombardi could eventually provide a kick-start to the Leafs third line with an intriguing blend of speed and intelligence.
"I'm starting to feel like there's some positive things," he concluded with optimism. "I've just got to stick with it. The good thing is I know I can be better."
Tim Connolly should provide an immediate boost offensively with Grabovski sidelined for at least the next two weeks with a lower-body injury. The 30-year-old Connolly is expected to return to the lineup on Thursday against the Predators after missing four games with an upper-body injury. "Feel good, ready to go," said Connolly. "I'm able to take a full stride and shoot fully. I wasn't quite there Monday. Just feels good to be ready to go and get back in the lineup."
Connolly – one goal and four points – will skate with new linemates in Nashville, likely paired with the struggling Nikolai Kulemin and still goal-searching Matt Frattin. Kulemin has gone eleven games without a goal and has just two so far this season, while Frattin remains on the hunt for his first in the NHL. With impressive vision and creativity, Connolly could help to jump-start the two struggling scorers.
Tyler Bozak remains with the continually efficient Kessel and Lupul.
Franson is the other former Predator set to make a return. The B.C. native played his first two NHL seasons in Nashville, but has thus far been limited to just four games of action with the Leafs, the seventh defenceman on a crowed blue-line. "I wouldn't say I'm frustrated or anything like that," said Franson. "It's a bit of a tough spot, but what can you do."
The Leafs are likely to dress seven defencemen against the Predators, giving Franson an opportunity to make an impression against his old club. "Every game's a chance for me to prove something to people," he said. "When you're in a situation I'm in you've got to take advantage of every opportunity you get and try and leave a good impression out there, whether you're going back in the lineup the next night or not."
The 24-year-old has been the victim of tough circumstance in the last two games he's dressed; the Leafs were shelled 6-2 in Boston on October 20th, pounded 7-0 at home two weeks later.