Leafs moving on from fan-favourite 4th line as search for balance continues

Alexander Edler scored in overtime and the Vancouver Canucks completed their rally against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

VANCOUVER — The five-foot-nine line is dead almost as quickly as it began.

In fact, Mike Babcock went so far as to say the decision to unite skilled waterbugs Trevor Moore, Tyler Ennis and Nic Petan limited his ability to properly manage the Toronto Maple Leafs bench during Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

“I couldn’t use it as much in D-zone, you know what I mean?” said Babcock, after replacing trusted six-foot-five centre Frederik Gauthier with the five-nine Petan on his fourth line.

“Everybody loves players, that’s great, but you’ve got to be able to use lines and everyone’s got to have a role and someone’s got to penalty-kill and someone’s got to be able to take faceoffs. So I didn’t think I gave our team, with that lineup, as good an opportunity as I might have wanted.”

We’ve reached the experimental portion of this Leafs season and you can understand the coach’s inclination to continue tinkering after the first blown third period lead all year. Against the 25th-place Canucks, no less, who rebounded from a woeful performance in Las Vegas and injected some life inside Rogers Arena.

Mere minutes after Alexander Edler’s overtime winner, Babcock had already announced that Igor Ozhiganov would replace Justin Holl on his third defensive pairing in Edmonton on Saturday night.

The creation of a Moore-Petan-Ennis line was greeted with fanfare because it offered a departure from what NHL teams typically roll out for their fourth unit. It’s a Kyle Dubas creation and it enjoyed some moments against the Canucks — drawing one of two penalties on the evening and creating the only scoring chance that occurred when it was on the ice.

But Babcock clearly didn’t share in the enthusiasm, and will be left with some interesting lineup decisions with Nazem Kadri likely ready to return from his concussion when Toronto faces the Oilers.

Should that happen, two of Petan, Ennis, Moore, Gauthier and Connor Brown would have to be scratched at Rogers Place.

With Boston basically locked in as a first-round opponent, these last 15 games are as much about trying to find the best version of themselves as anything else. That might explain the lack of outward frustration expressed after dropping to 32-0-1 in games they’ve led after 40 minutes this season.

“Just little mistakes that we’ve got to fix,” said Mitch Marner, who produced a sparkling assist on a Ron Hainsey short-handed goal. “Going forward, we’re going to look at it and be better at it. We’ve been pretty good all year at holding those leads so we can’t get frustrated about this one.”

Frederik Andersen continued his strong play, particularly during a 15-save first period, but acknowledged letting his mind wander a touch on Edler’s winner. It was just enough to let a dipping puck get past.

Among the more intriguing experiments the Leafs are planning is a more even rotation between Andersen and backup Garret Sparks down the stretch, perhaps even splitting them down the middle to keep Andersen under 60 regular-season appearances for the first time in three years.

“There was obviously a period of time prior to getting hurt [in late December] and after he got hurt that he wasn’t Freddie-like,” Babcock said before the game. “It looks like he’s got his game back, that’s important for us. The other thing that happened when he got hurt is he got rested, which is real important. The way we look at it is his max total can get to 56 [games] or something, that’s a real good number for him.

“He’s an important part of our team and he’s got to play well every night for us to have success.”

Inside the losing dressing room, Andersen declined to say what degree of input he had in that decision. When asked if the coaching staff had spoken with him about it, he replied: “I’m going to keep that between us. He can share whatever he wants to share.”

“I don’t care about the number, per se,” Andersen added. “I just play when they tell me to and rest [when they don’t]. It’s a little different because of the time I missed, so I don’t know how that will add up to the same thing. Try to get a little rest in and get Sparksy in there as well. Keep him sharp.”

In Vancouver, the Leafs weren’t quite sharp enough. They had a slow start, then roared ahead 2-0 and took two third-period penalties to open the door just enough.

They certainly didn’t overwhelm a weaker opponent.

And so the experiment continues.

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