TORONTO – Steve Sullivan was sidelined for 142 consecutive regular season games because of a serious back injury.
The former Leaf missed the final 20 games of the 2006-2007 season, the entire 2007-2008 campaign and 40 games in 2008-2009. All of which made him an inspiration to new Leaf and former Nashville Predators teammate Matthew Lombardi.
Lombardi is now painfully familiar with the plight Sullivan endured.
The 29-year-old missed 80 games last season with a concussion, but returned to the ice on Thursday night, notching the shorthanded game-winner in the Leafs season-opening 2-0 victory over Montreal.
"I talked to Sullie all the time about it," said Lombardi. "It's pretty cool to see guys that have had success, that have come back and played well and got back to the level they were at before and even more."
Sullivan recorded 32 points in 41 games upon his return to the NHL that season with the Predators. It was proof that not only could he make it back from the injury, but back to prior form. Lombardi is not at that point yet – timing and conditioning challenges remain – but he's fully confident that his game of old – 19 goals and 53 points in 2009-2010 – remains.
"It's there," he said. "You've just got to stay positive. You've got to push hard. You've got to push yourself. I'm playing, but I still know I can get a lot better. I've got a lot more to give."
Lombardi was held to just over eleven minutes in his Leafs debut, worked in slowly on the fourth line and penalty kill. His speed and smarts make him an ideal candidate to eventually move up the lineup. Following Thursday's win, Ron Wilson indicated that he'd likely add 1-2 minutes to Lombardi's workload each game.
Just being back and able to contribute is enough for him right now though.
For ten months, Lombardi wasn't even able to skate because of concussion-related symptoms. The road was long and certainly winding for the 90th overall pick in 2002, but with Sullivan and other concussion victims Patrice Bergeron and Pierre-Marc Bouchard in mind and available for advice, the Montreal native was able to summon the inner belief that he was capable of making it all the way back.
"It just goes to show that if you want it enough and you want to push yourself you can do it," concluded Lombardi. "You've just got to believe in it."
Tim Connolly has been all but ruled out of Saturday's game against Ottawa as he continues to recover from an upper-body injury which kept him out of Thursday's opener. Connolly practiced again on Friday, but has yet to take much in the way of physical contact. "It's more about overcoming the injury that he has," said Wilson, following Friday's session at the Mastercard Centre. "It's not about being in body contact. We're going to avoid that until he feels better. Another week and he should be ready to go."
The schedule is certainly favourable for Connolly. After Saturday, the Leafs won't play again for a week, set to host the Flames on October 15th.
Colton Orr meanwhile, is ready to make his season debut on Saturday night. The 29-year-old missed the final 36 games last season because of a concussion suffered during a fight with Ducks tough guy George Parros on January 20th. Orr will skate alongside Lombardi and Mike Brown on the Leafs fourth line.
Nazem Kadri was also back on the ice Friday as he recovers from a knee strain sustained during the preseason. Kadri is still another couple weeks from returning, but is likely to start with the Marlies when he's ready according to Wilson.