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Lombardi an unexpected bonus for Leafs

TORONTO -- It was 12 months ago minus seven days and Matthew Lombardi remembers every detail like it was yesterday.

His first season with the Nashville Predators ended barely after it began.

“Second game of the year in Chicago was skating through the neutral zone and headed into the offensive zone with the puck,’’ Lombardi, in French, recounted Thursday. “I was going pretty fast and I got tripped. It was an accident, but I went head first in to the boards.’’

And just like that, 80 games on the shelf, his year over, his nightmare had just begun.

Like Sidney Crosby and David Perron, a serious concussion put his career on hold. Unlike Crosby and Perron, Lombardi is back on the ice for the regular-season curtain raiser.

Who knew? Certainly not the Predators. If they thought Lombardi had any chance of playing opening night, we’re betting they don’t move him. But strangely enough, it's right after his trade to Toronto in July that Lombardi begins feeling better. Tough luck for Nashville and an unexpected bonus for the Leafs, who made the trade knowing blueliner Cody Franson was the only sure thing they were getting.

“Honestly, it’s kind of funny. Right after I got traded in July, it just started to turn around for me,” the Montreal native said. “Once I got to August, things really started to move fast. I had more progress in 2-3 weeks than I had in 10 months. That’s why I was able to participate in training camp.

“The last six weeks have been incredibly fast in terms of progress.’’

And here he is, opening night lacing them up against the Montreal Canadiens at Air Canada Centre.

With Tim Connolly injured to start the season, Toronto’s prized free-agent summer catch, Lombardi may end up playing a bigger role this season than anyone expected, if he can get back to his normal self and avoid any setback.

For now, though, it’s baby steps with Lombardi beginning Game 1 on the fourth line between tough customers Mike Brown and Jay Rosehill.

Leafs coach Ron Wilson is tempering his expectations for Lombardi early on this season.

“Bring speed, help on the penalty kill,” Wilson said Thursday after the morning skate. “I’m going to see how he’s adjusting to game speed. He’s only had one exhibition game under his belt. If he can take more, I’d love to move him up a little higher in the lineup. But right now just let him catch up. He admits himself he’s got a lot of rust and the game is pretty fast out there. As soon as he starts to get up to game speed where he’s recognizing game situation, he’s moving pucks, he’s sensing danger around him, then we’ll get him more ice time.”

A real turning point for Lombardi this summer was finding out that his remaining symptoms were not brain-related. That was a relief. The comeback started then. Therapists in Montreal worked on his neck.

“I realized my brain was fine; the symptoms were from my neck. That was important,’’ Lombardi said.

“I feel good right now, I’m confident.”

He kept a positive frame of mind last season with some help from formerly concussed players around the league.

“I spoke with Patrice Bergeron, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Antoine Vermette -- guys that have gone through it before,’’ Lombardi said.

Former Predators teammate Steve Sullivan, the veteran forward who missed two years with a serious back injury but came back from it, was also an inspiration.

“Those guys went through times but came back and have played real well. That kept me positive,’’ Lombardi said. “I looked at those guys, people didn’t think they’d be back or didn’t think they’d be the same player as before their injuries. But you see them today and they’re doing well. That’s why I’m pretty sure I can be the same player I was before my injury.”

Now he just needs to catch up. It won’t happen overnight. Missing a full year in the best league in the world takes its toll. He played last Saturday in his first preseason game against Detroit, and it was far from a walk in the park.

“I’m not going to lie, I was skating uphill a lot of the game,” Lombardi said. “But it’s going to get better every game. You can’t just turn the switch on and go back to where you were.”

Latest on Connolly

Connolly skated Thursday morning, but he’s still not a go.

And he may not be in Game 2, either.

“I’m not anticipating him playing Saturday,” Wilson said. “If he does it’s a bonus.”

After playing the Senators on Saturday, the Leafs have a week off.

“The extra week will probably be better for him,” Wilson said. “But if he comes to me and says he wants to play on Saturday, if he comes tomorrow and says he thinks he’s ready then he’ll probably be in the lineup.

“He’s practiced actually very well the last couple of days. Again, if this was a first round playoff game, I’m pretty sure he’d be in the lineup.”