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Matthews, Marner look to spark Maple Leafs as new linemates

Coach Babcock juggles forward combinations with Toronto 3-7-0 in past 10 games

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- Auston Matthews practiced on a line with Mitchell Marner for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday.

Wins have been hard to come by for the Maple Leafs of late -- they've lost two straight and are 3-7-0 in their past 10 games -- and several key players, including Matthews, have been mired in prolonged offensive slumps. 

So coach Mike Babcock decided it was time for a major reshuffling of their line combinations.

"The bottom line is we haven't won enough games here lately," Babcock said. "We need guys to score and find ways to win."

The most notable change was putting Matthews, a center, with Marner, a right wing who has played the entire season on center John Tavares' line.Patrick Marleau practiced at left wing with Matthews and Marner. 

Video: TOR@TBL: Tavares sets up Marner for sweet goal

Matthews has nine points in his past 13 games but one goal during that stretch after scoring nine in his previous 10 games.

Babcock hopes Marner, who has 11 points (seven goals, four assists) in his past 11 games, can help reignite Matthews, but he said playing with Marner will come with enhanced defensive responsibility for Matthews.

"The biggest challenge is when you play with Marner -- and I've been playing him against the best players all the time -- you've got to play against the best players, so that means you have to really commit without the puck," Babcock said. "That's the challenge. Tavares has done a great job for us with that, so we're going to change things around for a bit."

As for how long he intends to keep Matthews and Marner together, Babcock said he would take a wait-and-see approach.

"I'm not telling you it's going to last warmup, a period, a game, that's what we had today for the skate," Babcock said.

Toronto has scored three goals or fewer seven times in its past 10 games and has been shut out twice in that span.

Video: ARI@TOR: Hinostroza banks home rebound for the lead

The Maple Leafs will host the Washington Capitals, who are 0-4-1 in their past five games, at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, SN360, TVAS, NHL.TV). It will be their final game before 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend, which will be followed by their mandatory five-day break.

"Sometimes stuff gets stale, and if you switch things up, you get maybe a little pep in your step playing with other guys that you don't usually get to play with," Matthews said. "Hopefully, we ignite something here this next game heading into our break to feel good about ourselves going into this bye week and get a big two points, because we definitely need it."

Matthews and Marner have a close friendship off the ice and spend a lot of time with Marleau, as well. Matthews said he is looking forward to the chance to play alongside Marner and Marleau, who has two points (one goal, one assist) in his past 12 games.

Video: VAN@TOR: Matthews extends lead with wraparound goal

"[Marner] is a special player and makes guys around him better. When you play with guys like that, it kind of elevates your game and you want to be better as well," Matthews said. "I think [our off-ice relationship] always helps in certain ways and hopefully it translates well. We spend a lot of time with Patty on the road, so hopefully all three of us can complement each other well and get some stuff rolling."

Marner acknowledged there could be a brief learning curve, having not played with Matthews at even strength this season, but he said he feels their skill sets should mesh.

"Everyone knows how good his shot is, so for me it's just when I get the puck, try to find him in open areas so he can release it," Marner said. "Also, in our own zone just try to be there for support, make sure I'm talking to him on the ice because we haven't played together a whole lot. It'll take a little bit of warming up to do, but we'll have to do it quick."

With Marner off his wing, Tavares had left wing Zach Hyman and right wing Kasperi Kapanen on his line at practice. Center Nazem Kadri was between left wing Connor Brown and right wing William Nylander

Though Tavares has been one of the Maple Leafs' most consistent players, with 20 points (11 goals, nine assists) in his past 16 games, 18 of them at even strength, he said he welcomed the change given Toronto has been struggling to string together wins.

"For sure, I think it's a way to try to spark the group and change things up," Tavares said. "With the depth that we have and the skill set we have through all four lines, I think it's a strong point of our team. Sometimes change is good and can be a good spark towards getting some results."

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