Matthew Lombardi, Dany Sabourin

Matthew Lombardi admits he’s nervous about making his Leafs debut tonight

The Toronto Maple Leafs go into the 2011-12 season with plenty of wild cards. From James Reimer backing up his breakout season to their unexpected top line keeping it together and plenty of health questions, the Leafs really could go either way.

Even with some rather big “ifs” floating around, Matthew Lombardi’s battle with post-concussion syndrome ranks as one of the most mysterious (and potentially difference-making). Lombardi scored a great contract to become a significant checking center for the Nashville Predators, but he instead just played in two games before a concussion ended his season in Tennessee.

In what some might consider a surprisingly quick recovery (or semi-recovery), Lombardi will make his preseason debut with the Leafs tonight. Who knows if he’ll really be able to stick with the team from a health and fitness standpoint off the bat, but the Maple Leafs aren’t easing him into the action. He’ll center a line with Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel during the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

While he practiced in full-contact drills for a week, this still seems like a surprisingly quick phase in his comeback. Lombardi knows that physical challenges will come sooner or later, too.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Lombardi said on Saturday after a pre-game skate at the Air Canada Centre. “It’s going to be a weight lifted off my shoulders…to get this first game in and then move on and put everything behind me.

“I’m definitely going have some nerves going on but it’s good…It’s been so long. I’ve been so anxious the last couple of weeks. It’s finally here. Getting into a game and putting all the bad stuff behind me and moving forward…

“Mentally, I’ve been preparing to play. I had it in the back of my mind (since being cleared for full contact this week).”

(snip)

“I’m confident I’m healed,” he said. “We play in a game that is physical. There’s always a risk even if I never had a concussion. That’s the way it is.”

Lombardi drew attention during his last season with the Phoenix Coyotes in 09-10, as he scored 19 goals and 53 points while exhibiting great speed and strong versatility. His concussion problems almost made him seem like a throwaway in the deal to bring Cody Franson to Toronto, but the shift-skating center could be significantly more valuable if he can stay healthy.

Of course, the Maple Leafs have plenty of “ifs” going into the season, but a healthy Lombardi could Toronto a more balanced team. We’ll see how things go for him during the next few days to see if that claim is valid, though.

Goalie nods: Backup extraordinaire Montoya gets the call versus Wings

Florida Panthers goalie Al Montoya watches game action against the New Jersey Devils' during the second period of a NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
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The Florida Panthers have had no problem giving Roberto Luongo the odd night off this season. That’s because Al Montoya has been one of the best backups in the league.

Montoya (8-2-1, .931) will get the call tonight in Detroit, with Luongo (23-13-5, .930) expected to start tomorrow in Buffalo.

The Panthers have the highest team save percentage in the NHL, at .926 (which includes empty-net goals).

“They both give us a chance to win every night,” Panthers d-man Brian Campbell told the Miami Herald recently. “Both make huge saves for us at times. You need consistent saves every night and they both bring it. Montoya gets put into a tough spot a lot of times and nothing seems to change.”

Beyond Montoya, other NHL backups with particularly good numbers include the Flyers’ Michal Neuvirth (.933), the Kings’ Jhonas Enroth (.931), the Blues’ Brian Elliott (.930), the Islanders’ Thomas Greiss (.929), and the Wild’s Darcy Kuemper (.928).

Petr Mrazek will start for the Red Wings. He used to be Detroit’s backup, but he’s since surpassed Jimmy Howard for the starting job.

Elsewhere…

Cory Schneider for the Devils at MSG, versus Henrik Lundqvist for the Rangers.

John Gibson for the Ducks in Pittsburgh, versus Marc-Andre Fleury for the Penguins.

— Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Lightning in Ottawa, versus Craig Anderson for the Sens.

Blues put Pietrangelo on IR with knee injury

Pietrangelo-Coyle
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Not good news for the St. Louis Blues — the club announced this morning that defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has been placed on injured reserve with a right-knee injury. He’ll be re-evaluated in three weeks.

Pietrangelo suffered the injury Saturday in a knee-on-knee collision with Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle.

Based on the timeline provided, the Blues will be without their leader in average ice time (26:40) until at least the end of the month. St. Louis plays 10 times between now and Feb. 29, which also happens to be the trade deadline.

The big question, of course, is whether Pietrangelo will be ready to go upon re-evaluation.

The first day of the playoffs is April 13.

Update:

Related: Armstrong wants Blues to get healthy before any trades are made

“I wonder if that’s Crosby, what happens?’ — AV upset after McDonagh concussed by Simmonds

Alain Vigneault
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Alain Vigneault took another shot at the NHL’s Department of Player Safety today.

This time, the Rangers head coach was upset about the lack of supplementary discipline for Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds in the wake of Saturday’s altercation with New York captain Ryan McDonagh.

“An All-Star player gets sucker-punched, goes down,” Vigneault said, per The Record. “I wonder if that’s (Sidney) Crosby, what happens? What are the consequences? And, on top of that, a player breaks his stick, throws it at the referees. In the rulebook, that’s automatic. It’s three games. Nothing happens. It’s not even on the sheet after the game.”

Simmonds’ punch left McDonagh concussed and unable to play tonight versus New Jersey, with no timetable for his return.

Earlier this season, Vigneault voiced his frustration with the league after Rangers center Derek Stepan suffered broken ribs in Boston on a hit from Bruins forward Matt Beleskey.

Vigneault felt the hit was late.

“I remember Aaron Rome in this building, .6 seconds late, getting suspended four games in the Stanley Cup Final,” the former Vancouver Canucks coach said, recalling the contentious 2011 final.

Beleskey was not suspended.

Crosby, Karlsson and Trocheck are NHL’s three stars of the week

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby celebrates his goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Penguins center Sidney Crosby, Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, and Panthers center Vincent Trocheck have been named the NHL’s three stars for the past week.

From the NHL:

Crosby led the League in goals and points (5-3-8) in three games as the Penguins (26-18-7, 59 points) earned four of a possible six points to secure the second Wild Card position in the Eastern Conference.

Karlsson led the League in assists and ranked second in points (0-7-7) in three games as the Senators (24-23-6, 54 points) won one of three starts for the week.

Trocheck notched six points (3-3—6) in three games, helping the Panthers (31-15-6, 68 points) widen their lead atop the Atlantic Division to six points.

Related: Red-hot Crosby could make Pens a flawed (but dangerous) dark horse