Leafs shuffle lines in hopes of a spark

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:33 PM ET

Their top two lines are built for speed to head to the net, not to spar in front of it.

But the Maple Leafs coaching staff, trying to avoid a third consecutive shutout loss on Tuesday against Ottawa, cares little for job descriptions these days. They're taking away the driving gloves for something more suited to the task at hand -- digging for goals instead of dashing for glory.

When Sunday's practice at the MasterCard Centre began, the lines were jumbled from the 2-0 loss to the Rangers the night before. Mike Brown, a fourth-liner by trade, found himself with Kris Versteeg and Tim Brent, a fusion of three divergent combinations.

Luca Caputi, whose willingness to at least go to the blue paint has marked his two-game call-up, was cast as the muscle on the pairing of top scorer Phil Kessel and centre Tyler Bozak.

And Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin will have Clarke MacArthur on the left side, with MacArthur hoping his six goals will rub off on his linemates. Fredrik Sjostrom was dropped to Brown's spot on the fourth line with Christian Hanson and Colton Orr.

It looks as if centres John Mitchell and Mike Zigomanis will sit again against the Senators.

Assistant coach Tim Hunter did media briefing duty on Sunday and insisted the changes were just to balance the lines at practice as "an experiment" that might not survive more than one day.

But headmaster Ron Wilson rarely moves the chess pieces around without giving it a chance in a game. This might be going against general manager Brian Burke's "top six, bottom six" philosophy, but he won't say no if Toronto starts scoring again.

"Maybe it gives us three lines with balance instead of two with a lot of offence and two with a lot of grinding and checking," Hunter conceded.

"They're going to have to learn to score ugly goals, whether they're built for it or not."

Hunter's 62 goals in 815 career games certainly weren't high on artistic merit. But the NHL warhorse disagreed with the notion that he can't change the habits of his misfiring top guns. After the 13 total goals registered by Kessel and MacArthur, the rest of the top-six forwards have three and the team 10 in all.

"We've had one guy with the puck and two guys wanting to be shooters," Hunter said of the biggest breakdown with Toronto's attack. "You have to have guys go to the net and look for rebounds. And you have to have pucks on the net so that can happen. We haven't been doing that enough.

"On the power play, we haven't had anyone right in the front screening the goalie. They (forwards) turn around when the puck is on its way and try to matador it in the net.

"But if the goalie is seeing the puck today, he's stopping it. (Rangers' Henrik) Lundqvist saw way too many of our shots Saturday night and smothed them like a human sponge. We have to screen the goalie and have a high tipper so there's another chance on the way to the net the puck may change direction. These are little things we have to keep hammering home with our team every day."

Brown tried to play down the unique chance to be on a line with Versteeg, but he did muck his way to six goals with Anaheim last season as a plumber.

"They obviously want to change something up offensively, but whomever I'm with, I'll play the same way," Brown vowed. "I like cycling the puck and getting in front to create scrums so our defenceman shoots the puck and the goalie is blocked. That's my game, get in the goalie's face and try and bang away at the puck. Most of (the Anaheim goals) were crashing the net with my stick on the ice and the puck hitting it."

Versteeg says he looks forward to seeing what new options Brown can create.

"It's a different look, but that's how you're going to get goals these days. We've talked enough about it, now it's just about doing it."

Wilson pointed out after Saturday's loss that the Leafs had directed 92 shots toward the New York net, with 36 getting through, 35 blocked and 21 missing. But if it's not Lundqvist or NHL goals-against leader Tim Thomas of Boston (0.50), maybe the Leafs have a better result the past two games.

"Everybody can do that (ugly goal) routine, it' a matter of staying away from the perimetre," Bozak said. "It will come. Hopefully there's a spark."

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

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