Mike Babcock shakes up forward lines at Leafs' practice
Matthews, Nylander and Hyman played on a line together at Wednesday's skate
As the Maple Leafs digested their latest setback, one word kept bubbling to the surface — work.
Toronto's players and coaches rightly felt they lacked the required effort in Monday's 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on home ice, the team's fifth defeat in its last seven games.
"I think we can play harder, I think we can work harder," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said following Wednesday's spirited practice. "We want to be proud guys when we leave the rink.
"If you don't put it all in, you can't be proud when you leave."
With that in mind, Toronto looks set to unveil a couple of new line combinations — and one old one — when the club visits the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.
Auston Matthews was back between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, a trio that was together most of the last two seasons, while Andreas Johnsson was shuffled onto the wing with John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
The mixing of Toronto's top-9 forward group continued with Nazem Kadri centring Patrick Marleau and Kasperi Kapanen.
"We haven't taken (a) step like some of the teams (that) came back with more intensity since Christmas," said Babcock, who was more vocal than usual during Wednesday's on-ice session. "We've been left behind. We've got to dig in and find another level."
Should the Leafs indeed decide to reunite Matthews, Nylander and Hyman — Babcock didn't fully commit to Wednesday's line combinations — the trio won't need an introduction.
Several factors, including Nylander's contract impasse, an ankle injury that sidelined Hyman, and Babcock's decision to start the schedule with Patrick Marleau on the wing with Matthews, have kept them apart this season.
Babcock referenced that reunited group's ability to cycle in the offensive zone, something that will hopefully get Matthews better looks thanks to Hyman's puck retrieval skills.
"Three real good players working hard together," the coach said of what he likes about that line. "Matty's a goal scorer, and getting pucks in good spots around the net so (if) you can do that is important."
The Leafs (28-15-2), who skated a lot during the 35-minute practice before flying south, jumped out of the gate 20-8-0, but are just 8-7-2 over their last 17 games.
"A little bit of adversity is a good thing," said Tavares, who leads the team with 29 goals. "When it doesn't go your way, you've just got to keep pushing, keep grinding.
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"When you do the right things, especially with the type of group we have, we'll find our way through it and get to where we want to."
They were pretty far away from wherever that is Monday — amplified by the pockets of Scotiabank Arena that booed high-risk, high-reward defenceman Jake Gardiner every time he touched the puck in the third period after his mistake led to a short-handed goal against.
"We expect so much out of each other," Gardiner said. "The fans are the exact same way. (The boos are) not something you ever want, but they expect us to win and expect us to play well.
"You hit a boiling point. We do that the same way in the room. If we're not playing well, we start getting frustrated."
There's plenty of blame to go around these days.
Kadri has one goal in his last 18 games, Nylander has one in 17 since rejoining the team, Matthews has one in 10, and Marleau has been held off the scoresheet over his last nine.
"We've got a lot more to give," said the always-brief Nylander.
The Lightning (36-9-2), meanwhile, have been the class of the NHL all season.
They led the overall standings by 10 points following Tuesday's 2-0 victory in Dallas, and sit 16 ahead of Toronto in the Atlantic Division.
Tampa is on pace for 129 points, which would come up just short of the record held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens (132 points) and the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings (131 points). It would match the 1977-78 Habs (129 points). The league's best finish in the salary-cap era was the Detroit Red Wings and the 124 points they earned in 2005-06.
The Lightning lead the league in goals per game (4.00) and have the No. 1 power play (29.1 per cent), but the Leafs dominated Tampa on Dec. 13 at Amalie Arena, directing 49 shots at netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy in a 4-1 loss.
"We were on our toes and dictating the play," Tavares said.
The Leafs, who will meet the Florida Panthers on Friday to wrap up a two-game road trip, are 15-5-1 on the road, but just 6-5-1 against division opponents compared to the Lightning's 12-2-0 mark.
"We know what we're capable of," Matthews said. "We're going through a bit of a lull right now. It's our job to dig ourselves out and crawl back.
"That's up to us, nobody else."
And that starts with putting in the work.