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Leafs look for a spark with unproven line combos for must-win Game 4

With Toronto just a loss away from its season ending in excruciating fashion, head coach Sheldon Keefe is once again tinkering with his lines.

Whenever a coach is in a desperate situation they essential have two options: reach for what's worked before, or try to mix things up with a new approach.

With the Maple Leafs on the brink of elimination, Sheldon Keefe appears to be choosing the second option. The Toronto head coach isn't doing anything extraordinarily outside the box in Game 4, but he's opting to go with a combination of lines that favours novelty over track record.

None of the top three combos have played more than 120 minutes with each other over the course of 2022-23, and Keefe needs them to click.

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Here's a look at what the Maple Leafs coach has thrown together in an effort to keep his team in contention.

Line 1: Calle Järnkrok — Auston Matthews — Mitch Marner

With the Leafs facing a must-win, Auston Matthews will play with two linemates he rarely shared the ice with during the regular season in Game 4. (John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports)
With the Leafs facing a must-win, Auston Matthews will play with two linemates he rarely shared the ice with during the regular season in Game 4. (John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports)

The theory: Matthews and Marner are supposed to be the two best players on this team, and their skills mesh well with the centre finishing and winger setting him up. Järnkrok has looked good with these two at times during the playoffs and on the heels of a 20-goal season he might be the role player Toronto trusts most to finish his opportunities.

That said, the Swede hasn't scored since Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, so pulling him up to the first line has to be considered a bit of a heat check on Keefe's part.

The 5-on-5 numbers:

Via Naturalstattrick.com
Via Naturalstattrick.com

It's tough to quibble with anything here although Matthews and Marner tend to perform well by these metrics regardless of who they're alongside, so it's unclear if Järnkrok is making a huge impact.

The alternative: Bunting has spent more time alongside Matthews and Marner than anyone else, and he's one of the few top forwards who's scored for the Maple Leafs in this series. His physicality has usually complemented this line well, but he's also been a loose cannon at times.

Pushing him down the lineup helps balance the lines a touch, though there's an argument to be made that it hurts the group that needs to get going the most.

Line 2: Alex Kerfoot — John Tavares — William Nylander

The theory: If Matthews and Marner are on Line 1 then Tavares and Nylander are going on Line 2. Tavares has not played well, but demoting him might be a step too far when this team needs offence.

Nylander can carry the puck around the perimeter looking for opportunistic plays towards the net while Tavares can provide a target in front. Kerfoot is a utility man who played with these two a lot in 2021-22.

The 5-on-5 numbers:

Via Naturalstattrick.com
Via Naturalstattrick.com

While these numbers look pretty enticing, it's worth remembering that this group essentially held serve in over 400 minutes together last season.

The alternative: Once again, you could make a case for Bunting here. His stylistic fit makes sense with a couple of guys who don't do a lot of hitting, but they might not want another winger who crowds the net when Tavares wants to get there.

This group had also had some success with Järnkrok during the regular season. If you wanted to get wild you could have Sam Lafferty come up to add a speed element and potential rush partner for Nylander, but that might be an overreaction to his strong Game 3.

Line 3: Michael Bunting Ryan O'Reilly Noel Acciari

The theory: Sending Bunting all the way to the bottom six is a means of giving this line more juice than its had for most of the playoffs. O'Reilly has been quiet at even strength and Bunting might be able to help while Acciari holds onto his spot as the best offensive threat left.

The 5-on-5 numbers:

Via Naturalstattrick.com
Via Naturalstattrick.com

Those numbers are up there for the purposes of formatting consistency, but there's nothing to be taken from them considering how small this sample is.

The alternative: You could try Lafferty as an Acciari replacement, but you'd be hard pressed to call that a significant upgrade. Sending Bunting down is the big move here. If they'd left him in the top six O'Reilly would just be dealing with left wing leftovers.

The fourth line of Zach Aston-Reese, David Kämpf, and Lafferty projects to stay the same. That's probably fair considering the group is responsible for two of the Maple Leafs' last four goals. The unit also drew a penalty that led to one of the other ones. They've arguably done their part already.

The whole look here is an adjustment not an overhaul. If it makes a difference, the Maple Leafs might just live to fight another day.