Ever-changing Maple Leafs fourth line has quantity, quality for playoffs

Nazem Kadri's 29th goal of the season was the go-ahead goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their win over the Detroit Red Wings.

TORONTO – So what if Toronto’s line of first-star Nazem Kadri, age-defying Patrick Marleau and leading scorer Mitch Marner combined for a beautiful and historic game-winner Saturday night?

“It wasn’t their night, let’s clear that up,” said coach Mike Babcock, following a 4-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings that extended the Maple Leafs’ home win streak to a record 13.

“It wasn’t their night. That line, we need way more out of that group. We need them to get going. They know that, though.”

The Leafs, scary as this is, don’t need to be firing on all cylinders to win. Which is why, with seven games remaining, this century-old club is on the brink of setting a new franchise record for wins in a season.

More so than Auston Matthews’ toe-drag snipes, or the second set of eyes lodged in the back of Marner’s helmet, or Frederik Andersen’s knack for surviving a 41-shot night (yep, he faced another one of those), the thing that will most frighten Toronto’s opponent(s) come playoff time is its ridiculous forward depth.

Four lines of finishers, who can burgle your momentum with one good shift on a bad night. Their top three point-getters all skate on different lines, and — looky here — now Line No. 4 is gelling at the perfect time.

“[Tomas] Plekanec’s line was our best line by far,” Babcock said. “The three of them, I thought they were really fast. I played them against anybody. I didn’t really match as much as I normally do; I just let them roll out the door.”

The Maple Leafs’ fourth line — gaining trust, confidence and chemistry by the shift — should be integral to a prolonged run this spring.

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Saturday’s edition of Babcock’s seemingly forever in-flux fourth unit featured three players who weren’t on the opening-night roster.

Deadline scoop Plekanec centred Marlies recruits Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, and that group ranked tops among all Leafs in 5-on-5 possession (59 per cent), while Kadri’s crew got caved in for 52 minutes.

“They’ve picked up the slack and given us some heavy offensive-zone shifts, which we needed to give us a spark and generated some energy,” Kadri said. “They’ve contributed offensively as well, which is always good to see.”

The diligence of Johnsson (on the forecheck) and Plekanec (backcheck) drew penalties at both ends of the ice, and the trio conjured more sustained pressure than a bottom trio should.

“You don’t have to hide anybody, and you can play less minutes for everybody and play harder and faster,” Babcock explained of the benefits of rolling the north end of his bench like an assembly line of Stormtroopers.

“We’re trying to play as fast as we possibly can. We still think there’s another level we can get to, and that’s what I preach every day. In order to do that, you’ve got to have short shifts and you’ve got to have lots of people.”

The quantity of quality people — at least up front — is of zero concern for this edition of the Leafs.

Heck, Toronto’s unofficial fifth line at practice these days — Martin-Moore-Leivo — would be an upgrade on plenty of opponents’ fourth lines, to say nothing of the injured Leo Komarov (knee), whose return needn’t be hasty.

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Komarov isn’t likely to lose his ice to Johnsson, but the 23-year-old has impressed Babcock during his late-season audition and may be first man up if an injury arises. On this night, the seventh-rounder fired two shots, snatched a game-high three takeaways and blocked a shot. Could he take Kapanen’s job?

“He’s faster than I thought. I always knew he was quick when I watched him with the Marlies. I didn’t know if he had speed. He does,” Babcock said.

“And he’s so intelligent and on the right side of the puck and he makes really good plays, got good fast-twitch. He’s good on the power play, good on the penalty kill, he’s a good hockey player. We’re lucky to have him.”

It was Kapanen who broke open a sloppy first frame that featured awkward collisions, caught skate edges, Zach Hyman’s first official “fight,” and a share of bobbled pucks you’d expect from a game that means so little for the fate of either side.

The rookie accepted a pretty feed through Andreas Athanasiou’s legs from Tyler Bozak in tight and made no mistake beating Jimmy Howard across.

Dylan Larkin got sprung for a breakaway up the gut by Anthony Mantha in Period 2, and with both Travis Dermott and Roman Polak giving chase, D-Boss made no mistake, sniping glove side on Andersen. The Wings, for a stretch, sprang to life — they just have fewer finishers.

The visitors were given a golden chance to seize the lead one shift later when Martin Frk earned a penalty shot but failed to convert off the freebie.

Jimmy Howard’s larcenous glove swiped a seemingly sure backhand roof by a buzzing Andreas Johnsson, then Tyler Bertuzzi tipped home a Danny Dekeyser point shot to give Detroit a temporary 2-1 advantage.

The Maple Leafs, outshot (41-29) for the umpteenth time, withstood Detroit’s press and summoned a response of their own.

Connor Brown slipped into the high slot and knocked down a Dermott wrister from the point to tie the game at two apiece. The redirect marked Brown’s first goal in 15 games.

When Frans Nielsen sniped another go-ahead third-period goal (originally ruled off, but correctly challenged by Jeff Blashill), super duo Auston Matthews (assist) and William Nylander (goal) instantly evened the score by working a smooth give-and-go.

Kadri delivered that final dagger off a brilliant full-stride backhand feed from Patrick Marleau, who hunted down a nifty Marner chip-out.

“Patty just burned ’em with his speed,” Kadri said. “I don’t know how he does it. I can’t imagine when I’m 40 years old how I’m gonna feel.”

In truth, Marleau is only 38.

Another truth: it was in the best interest of both franchises for the Maple Leafs to take this one.

The Red Wings, having whiffed on the post-season in consecutive campaigns for the first time since 1982-83, inched closer to Ottawa, Arizona and Vancouver when it comes to boosting their draft lottery odds.

“We all know we’re in a transition here. We’ve got younger players coming in. All the teams go through it,” said captain Henrik Zetterberg. “We’ve got to get lucky in the draft. We’ve got a lot of picks.”

As the Maple Leafs are proving, you can never have enough people.

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