TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs could have defenseman Nikita Zaitsev back in the lineup Wednesday in their game against the New York Islanders at the Air Canada Centre.
Zaitsev suffered a broken foot Dec. 15 in a game against the Detroit Red Wings and has not played since, missing 17 contests.
“It was pretty evident we missed him,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.
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The coach said that it would be determined at the morning skate Wednesday if Zaitsev will be in the lineup for the game as Toronto plays for the first time since the All-Star break.
The Maple Leafs went into the break on a high, winning two games in a row, finishing with a 4-1 victory over the Dallas Stars on Thursday.
The Islanders, meanwhile, returned from the break Tuesday night and lost 4-1 to the Florida Panthers.
Islanders center Casey Cizikas returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing six games with an upper-body injury. He was used in a different position Tuesday, seeing time on the left wing.
“Excited to get him back,” Islanders coach Doug Weight said. “He does a lot, plays in a lot of different areas. Certainly, the reliability and the responsibility he has defensively, forechecking, he has a big engine and brings a lot of energy.”
Cizikas played 12:56 and had no points. “He got better as the game went on,” Weight said. “He was a little bit rusty at first.”
The Maple Leafs soon could have defenseman Morgan Rielly back as well. He skated for the second time Tuesday since suffering an arm injury that so far has cost him four games.
Rielly’s injury makes the Maple Leafs appreciate the return of Zaitsev even more.
“We’re just not as good (without Zaitsev), not as deep,” Babcock said. “The mistakes we make on defense are because we have guys in the wrong spots. … When we’ve got those two pairs (regular partners Jake Gardiner and Zaitsev, Rielly and Ron Hainsey) we’ve got two, who can play against anybody. It’s really significant.”
The Maple Leafs (28-18-5) resume their schedule after the break, sitting third in the Atlantic Division, and are 5-2-3 in their past 10 games.
“Our team is going in the right direction,” Babcock said Tuesday after practice. “It never happens as fast as people want, and yet we have improved quickly to a point where I think you can have pride in what we’re doing, but we’re also cognizant of the fact we have a long way to go and we have to keep getting better.
“But you’re allowed to push the envelope and get better faster than you are supposed to and become a deeper team. That’s the process we’re right now. We’re excited.”
The Islanders (25-21-5) are looking to make a playoff run in a tight Metropolitan Division. They sit outside a playoff spot, tied for sixth place with 55 points, eight out of first place. They are 5-3-1 in their past nine games.
“Our division has been just a mess,” Weight said. “If you have a good week you jump five stops. You can be six, seven games over .500 and one point out of last in your division … Definitely, on a night-by-night basis it’s amped up. The games are a little more important. You’re rooting for two teams (in your division) not to tie. It comes down to taking care of business yourself.”
They did not look after business against the Panthers.
“Outworked, outpaced,” Weight said. “They got the puck in, made us turn and we turned it over for two periods. That’s pretty much it. We just got outworked, there’s no explanation, I guess.”
The Maple Leafs are 13-8-2 at home; the Islanders are 12-13-2 on the road.