NEW YORK – Jostling for a loose puck with John-Michael Liles, Tim Connolly took a loud but not overly impactful hit into the end boards at Madison Square Garden.
There was no grimace, no look of discomfort or pain, nothing that would indicate Connolly not making his Leafs debut on Thursday night when the team visits the Rangers in their home opener.
The 30-year-old has missed the first eight games of the regular season due to a shoulder injury suffered in the second week of training camp, but after his second full practice on Wednesday afternoon, he appears on the verge of joining the lineup for the first time.
"Timmy Connolly is very, very, very, very close," said head coach Ron Wilson, noting that a firm decision would not be made until Thursday.
"We've got a game [Thursday] so we'll see," said Connolly. "It was good to get out there, get in some regular shifts out there, do a little penalty-killing and power-play, get a few reps – feel pretty good."
It's been a long-awaited debut.
Nagged by a series of injuries since the lockout – he missed 192 games over six seasons – Connolly got off to a rather unfortunate start in Toronto, tumbling heavily into the end boards at practice on September 26. Initially day-to-day with an undisclosed upper-body injury, Connolly was actually more week-to-week as the injury to his shoulder failed to improve.
Inked to a two-year deal worth $9.5 million in the offseason, the Syracuse native was pegged to be the much-needed veteran pivot for Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul this season, a role he's going to obtain upon his return.
"They're really clicking right now," said Connolly. "I'm just going to try and stay out of their way; just get 'em the puck as much as possible and try and do all the little things right."
Kessel entered Wednesday's action as the NHL scoring leader with 15 points, also leading the way in goals with nine in the first eight games. Lupul meanwhile, has re-energized his career in Toronto early this fall, totalling four goals and nine points thus far. A host of centres including Tyler Bozak, David Steckel, Matthew Lombardi and Nazem Kadri have lined up alongside the two marksmen, but it's been primarily their work together which has spawned success.
Connolly has played with the duo sparingly – just the two preseason games – thus making chemistry an early issue to watch. Despite their hot starts, however, Kessel and Lupul should both benefit from Connolly's vision and passing ability down the middle – 13 goals, 42 points last season. Anything the pair has done thus far has been self-created, nothing that closely resembles an easy tap-in goal.
"There could be some chemistry issues here," said Wilson, "but those guys have taken care of business – [Lupul and Kessel] – pretty much regardless of who their centreman is.
"Timmy's very smart in the offensive zone and he's got a great shot too, so not only can he pass but he's also a scoring threat. I think over time Timmy will blend in easily with those guys."
Connolly's presence also allows for much greater balance up front. Wilson can now comfortably slide Bozak onto the third-line – with Lombardi and Matt Frattin on his wings – a role the organization is confident he can play. David Steckel also shifts into a more suitable role, minding the fourth unit with Phillipe Dupuis and Mike Brown.
In addition, the Leafs are hopeful that Connolly will help re-invigorate a power-play that has had its share of trouble, in spite of decent production – six goals in 39 opportunities (15.4%). Eventually, he'll see time on the penalty kill as well.
Adjusting to game speed is likely to be Connolly's biggest challenge in the early going. He has not taken part in a game since September 23 – his second exhibition match – and was injured at Mastercard Centre three days later. Having not played at all this season, he'll be racing to catch up to the rapid pace of his peers.
"No matter what you do the game conditioning is always a little bit different," said Connolly, who has rode the bike and skated intensely for weeks. "Everything's moving that much quicker. Guys are that much quicker, the play happens faster. For me, I'm just going to try and go out there and keep my shifts short, short as I can."
Wilson was unsure of how many minutes Connolly would be able to handle initially, although something in the 15-17 minute range seems reasonable – also dependent on whether he kills penalties right out of the gate.
"We'll see how the game goes," said Wilson. "Sometimes a guy's great in the first game – he's got all this adrenaline going – and it's game two, three, four, five that he struggles in, so we'll see however he's going and how he feels. That's my job to communicate and see how he's doing."
If Connolly is in fact ready to go on Thursday, the Leafs will be forced to make a roster move with Nazem Kadri likely to be returned to the Marlies.
James Reimer and Tyler Bozak are also expected in the Leafs lineup on Thursday night. Reimer missed Monday's game in Philadephia with a minor neck injury, but appears likely to start against the Rangers. "We're pretty close," said Reimer, who spent a significant chunk of practice working exclusively with goaltending coach Francois Allaire. "Felt pretty good on the ice, a little rusty right off the bat – it's been a couple days – but I feel pretty good."
"He did take a significant blow and twisted his neck pretty hard," said Wilson. "I'm glad that it's not a long-term thing."
Bozak meanwhile, has missed the last two games because of a foot injury, but on Wednesday declared himself fit to return against the Rangers.