Johnston: Maple Leafs could be back to full strength after 2-day break — including William Nylander

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TORONTO — They may now be trailing in the series, but the Toronto Maple Leafs should at least see some hope on the horizon.

With an extra day to prepare for Game 4 in this first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, the Leafs are expected to return with reinforcements when the teams battle here again on Saturday night.

That would include William Nylander, who has yet to appear in this best-of-seven due to an undisclosed injury suffered in the final week of the regular season. He is trending toward a return to the lineup, according to league sources, after skating multiple times in recent days.

The Leafs should also have top-line center Auston Matthews back in better health after he played through an illness during Wednesday’s 4-2 loss. That explains why he was the only regular to miss the morning skate at Scotiabank Arena — opting instead for more rest — and helps account in part for a night when he didn’t look like his usual explosive self though still logging another 23-plus minutes.

Given the team’s struggles on special teams and the 2-1 deficit it is facing in the series, you won’t hear the Leafs complaining about a drawn-out schedule that will see them face the Bruins just once in the next five days. It presents an opportunity to reset while allowing for the various injury situations they’re managing to improve.

“Yeah, for sure,” Keefe said Wednesday night. “Not just guys who aren’t playing, but some of the guys who are playing. Some guys gave us a lot here (in Game 3) and have given us a lot through this series that can absolutely benefit from the day off and some of the things they’ve been going through.”

It should be particularly useful for Matthews, who has skated 67:33 so far in the series — more than everyone except for Boston’s Charlie McAvoy (77:00) and Hampus Lindholm (69:25), and Leafs teammate Morgan Rielly (72:43), all defensemen.

Despite not being 100 percent on Wednesday, Matthews delivered a team-high eight hits and fired seven shots at the Bruins’ goal. One of those struck a post and another sailed through Jeremy Swayman’s arm and body, only to deflect out wide.

Leafs players are due to take Thursday completely off before practicing on Friday. By the time the puck drops at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, roughly 70 hours will have elapsed since the final buzzer sounded on Game 3.

That’s a luxury not often afforded to teams in the middle of a playoff series.

“That’s what we’ll look at it as — just (a chance to) regroup in here,” Mitch Marner said. “Hopefully, some guys can feel a little better and get back out there with us on Saturday.”

Nylander hasn’t played since waking up the morning after the regular-season finale in Tampa, Fla., not feeling quite right. The Leafs finished with back-to-back games against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, and he skated just shy of 35 combined minutes in those contests.

With speculation mounting about the reason for his absence and the team offering little in the way of official updates on his status, Nylander was then held completely off the ice for three days before participating in a skate with the Game 1 scratches on Sunday afternoon in Boston.

He labored through it, repeatedly hunching over his knees between drills.

Nylander went on to take the morning skates with teammates before Games 2 and 3, noticeably ramping up his work rate and exertion on Wednesday. His demeanor shifted, too, and he could be seen smiling, laughing and offering encouraging words to teammates.

Coming off a 98-point season — the best of his NHL career — Nylander’s anticipated entrance into the series represents a big boost for a Leafs team struggling to put the puck behind Swayman.

The team is just 1-for-11 on the power play against Boston so far, and Nylander would presumably bump Tyler Bertuzzi back to the second unit.

The Bruins, meanwhile, seemed less enthused about the wait they’re now enduring before Game 4.

“I would have rather been here Thursday-Saturday, if I’m being honest,” head coach Jim Montgomery said. “I think we’re spending more time in Toronto than Toronto’s spending in Boston, and we’re the home team.”

Keefe pointed out that the schedule is the same for both teams participating and mentioned that the Bruins also gain time to soothe any bumps and bruises. But they haven’t been playing without a top scorer.

“Coming off a loss, it gives us a chance for sure to take a breath, regroup,” Keefe said. “It’s been a lot of hockey here for us since we had to go out on the road to finish the regular season until now. It’s been a lot of hockey for our guys.

“We’ve played hard. At times, we’ve played well.”

Their chances of playing better should go up considerably with Nylander back in the lineup and Matthews closer to full health.

(Photo of Auston Matthews and William Nylander: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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