TORONTO — Ryan O’Reilly had a strong inkling the diagnosis wouldn’t be what he wanted to hear.
The Maple Leafs centre had just taken a friendly fire shot off his left hand in the waning moments of the second period in Vancouver on March 4.
When he got to the locker room, a member of Toronto’s medical staff wanted to take a look at one of his fingers.
“Saw it was crooked … and then I saw the X-ray,” O’Reilly recalled. “It was disappointing.”
Acquired from the St. Louis Blues as part of a blockbuster mid-February trade by a franchise desperate to finally get over its painful post-season hump, he just didn’t know how disappointing.
With roughly six weeks left on the schedule, there could be enough time to heal before the playoffs.
“I didn’t really know,” O’Reilly continued. “When (a trainer) said I probably need surgery it was like, ‘Does he mean I’m done for season?'”
Thankfully for both the 2019 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and his new team, the news was largely positive given that initial fear — O’Reilly would go under the knife for a broken finger, but was expected back in four weeks.
“Better that it wasn’t later in the season,” he said Friday after joining practice for the first time since the injury. “That gave me a little relief that, ‘OK, I’m here for playoffs.’
“That’s all that really matters.”
O’Reilly had a hat trick and two assists in eight games with Toronto before getting hurt. The 2019 Selke Trophy winner as the league’s top defensive forward, he has 24 points in 48 combined appearances in 2022-23 after also missing time earlier this season with a broken foot.
“Very positive sign for us,” Leafs captain John Tavares said of O’Reilly’s impending return. “Good jolt for the group.”
There’s no precise timetable for when O’Reilly will see game action, but the player wants a full practice minus the red non-contact jersey — he was hard to miss Friday — meaning Thursday in Boston could be the target with the Leafs playing Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday.
“Incredible intelligence and sense of how to play the game,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the 2019 Stanley Cup champion.
“This is a guy that plays with a playoff intensity and playoff intelligence all the time.”
With the Leafs comfortably sitting in the Atlantic Division’s No. 2 seed and a first-round rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning basically set in stone, O’Reilly indicated it was possible he’d be suiting up sooner if the games mattered more.
“We’re progressing,” said the 32-year-old. “We gotta be smart. The goal is to be 100 per cent for playoffs.”
A key contributor in the faceoff circle, O’Reilly feels his shooting and passing is up to speed, but there are other areas of slight concern.
“Stick battles and just being able to trust it,” he said. “I could push it harder, but there’s no point.
“It’ll just help me down the road.”
And while O’Reilly knows patience is the right call, he’s also itching to get back in the fray before the impending post-season battles.
“You can skate all you want and practise all you want,” O’Reilly said. “But the feel of the game and the pushing and the competing, that’s something that you can’t really replicate.”
Leafs winger William Nylander is second on the team in goals (36), assists (45) and points (81), but has struggled of late.
The 26-year-old has just one goal and one assist — both came in a 6-2 victory over Florida on March 23 — over his last eight games.
“Was getting irritated on myself,” Nylander said. “Just got to work hard and that stuff will come.”
Toronto went 7-5-2 in March after going 37-15-8 through the schedule’s first 60 games.
Keefe isn’t thrilled with the month’s record, but he saw some good things over the team’s recent 3-2-0 road trip and Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Florida.
“We’ve found a way to defend well and generate chances,” he said.
Keefe added the advanced statistics have largely been in the Leafs’ favour, and he’s pleased with how the group managed a lot of moving parts following a number of additions — including O’Reilly — prior to the NHL trade deadline.
“We’re controlling play really well,” he said. “That’s a sign things are really coming together, no matter what the lineup has looked like.”
Keefe wouldn’t name a starting goaltender for Saturday’s game in Ottawa or Sunday’s home date with Detroit, but has indicated he wants Ilya Samsonov to see more road action and have Matt Murray get going at Scotiabank Arena.
Samsonov is 18-2-3 at home with a .927 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average, but just 6-7-1 with an .892 save percentage and 3.32 GAA on the road.
Murray, meanwhile, is 5-2-1 with an .880 save percentage and a 3.37 GAA in Toronto, and 9-6-1 with a .915 save percentage and a 2.75 GAA on the highway.
Noel Acciari, the other piece in the O’Reilly deal, won’t play this weekend because of a neck/whiplash injury that saw him sit out Wednesday.
Fellow forward Wayne Simmonds (illness) also missed practice, which opened the door for Radim Zohorna, 26, to be recalled from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies on an emergency basis.
The six-foot-six winger, who could play Saturday, was acquired from Calgary on March 3 and has 33 games of NHL experience.
It was a scramble to get Zohorna into the Leafs’ practice facility — the team shares its digs with the Marlies — Friday morning.
“He didn’t even know how to get (into) this side of the building,” Keefe said. “He’s new for me, new for our staff.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press