SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Mitch Marner could have returned to action earlier in the week had the schedule allowed for it.
Both he and forward Pierre Engvall, were eligible to return to the team earlier than Friday, but a compressed schedule that saw the Toronto Maple Leafs play on back-to-back nights made for a less-than-ideal situation for both forwards to re-enter the lineup earlier in the week.
“It wouldn’t have been the right to do, playing last game but I was open to doing that as well,” Marner said after practice on Friday, “I’m just excited to be back and I’m good to go.”
Marner and Engvall were placed in COVID-19 protocol eight days ago. The timing of their exit put them right in between games against the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday and Thursday.
Instead, both players skated at home before boarding a plane for Phoenix on Thursday.
Marner took his regular spot on the first line with Michael Bunting and Auston Matthews at practice. He also got his spot back on the team’s top power-play unit and will likely be on the penalty kill when the team visits the St. Louis Blues on Saturday.
The timing of Maner and Engvall’s comes just as the team announced before practice that forwards Ondrej Kase, Nitch Ritchie and defenseman Justin Holl entered COVID-19 protocol.
“Both guys are really valuable for us and they contribute in lots of ways,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of Marner and Engvall. “It’s tough to see guys leave the lineup, but that’s how it is with COVID these days.”
Marner returned to the lineup on Jan. 1 after missing most of December with a shoulder injury he sustained in a collision at practice with teammate Jake Muzzin. The skilled forward was coming off a productive November where he scored five goals and added 11 assists in 14 games. He followed that up with a two assists in an 8-3 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Dec. 1.
With the Leafs struggling to hold on to leads in the third period in their current road trip, Marner’s rest and offense could help give the team a much-needed boost.
“He looked good, had a lot of pep and a lot of energy,” Matthews said of Marner. “It’s never easy to just pop back in and start going again with the time off, but if anyone can kind of bounce back and be as much of himself as possible, it’s definitely him.”
The Maple Leafs have been outscored 5-1 in the third period of their last three games. Keefe mentioned following the team’s 2-1 loss to the Coyotes that he was concerned about where his team was at from a conditioning standpoint.
After a 17-day pause in their schedule due to COVID-19 outbreak that hit both the team and the league, the Leafs played their first pair of games in 2022 without fans. The contests felt like pre-season games due to the time off, combined with the lack of a crowd at Scotiabank Arena due to Ontario government restrictions.
“It’s coming up here and it shows that we haven’t played in these environments in such a long time,” Keefe said. ‘It’s taken us a while to get through it so we have to be mindful of that.”
On Friday, Keefe ended the session with a conditioning skate where players sprinted back and forth for 45 second intervals.
Jack gets his due
Jack Campbell and Matthews were both named to the 2022 NHL All-Star Game on Thursday. For Matthews, it’s not a surprise as the superstar will make his fourth appearance and second as team captain of the Atlantic Division. But for Campbell it will be his first at age 30.
“It’s a huge moment for me and my family,” Campbell said of the honor.
Drafted 11th overall by the Dallas Stars in the 2011 NHL Draft, the Port Huron, Michigan native struggled to find his footing in the league.
He eventually found a home with the Los Angeles Kings where he established himself as a dependable backup before joining the Maple Leafs in February of 2020. Last season, Campbell set the NHL record for most wins to start the season at 11 and unseeded incumbent starter Frederik Anderson.
Campbell has carried last season’s success into this year with 18-5-3 record and a .935 save percentage. His consistency and solid numbers are putting in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy, handed out annually to the NHL’s best goaltender.
“It’s a great story and something people can learn from,” Matthews said of Campbell.”