TORONTO — Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner returned to Toronto's lineup against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night following an 18-game absence due to a back injury.
The 28-year-old blue-liner last suited up on Feb. 25 against the Buffalo Sabres.
Set to meet the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive spring, Toronto was just 8-7-3 without Gardiner.
The native of Minnetonka, Minn., has two goals and 27 assists in 60 games this season.
Gardiner was in the starting lineup against the Lightning with usual defence partner Nikita Zaitsev.
The high-risk, high-reward Gardiner, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, was booed by fans at Scotiabank Arena in January during a couple of poor performances, but his return comes just in time for a club looking to win its first playoff series since 2004.
The Canadian Press