TORONTO - They've lost three straight and are coming off their most disappointing performance of the season.
But instead of skating the Toronto Maple Leafs without mercy Wednesday, head coach Randy Carlyle took his players back to their roots by starting practice at the Air Canada Centre with a little ball hockey.
"In some of the situations you're presented with over the course of the season when you don't feel good about yourself then it's time to resort back to when you were a kid," Carlyle said. "We all played ball hockey, street hockey, and you can see it lightens the mood for your practice.
"It picks your players up and put them back in touch about what their childhood was about. The game is meant to be fun but the most fun about the game of hockey is when you win.''
Mission accomplished, said Leafs' goaltender James Reimer.
"Oh definitely, it's fun," he said. "It's right back to your roots of playing in the driveway with your buddies back home.
"I think I could've sniped a few goals if I was out there but I didn't want to make the other guys look bad.''
On Tuesday night, it was the Leafs who looked back in a 5-2 road loss to the Winnipeg Jets. The defeat marked the first time this season Toronto (15-11-1) has dropped three straight contests.
The game was certainly bitter-sweet for Reimer, a native of Morweena, Man., who got the start in his home province. But Reimer was lifted in the third period in favour of backup Ben Scrivens following the Jets' fourth goal.
Trouble is, the Leafs don't have the luxury of time. On Thursday, they host the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins, who've won six straight, including a 5-4 shootout decision at the Air Canada Centre last weekend. Then on Saturday, the Jets visit the ACC for a rematch.
But much of the attention Wednesday was focused squarely on Toronto Marlies defenceman Jake Gardiner. Shortly after the Leafs' loss to Winnipeg, his agent Ben Hankinson tweeted "#FreeJakeGardiner."
"I don't really pay attention to what agents have to say . . . I don't live in the Twitter world," Carlyle said. "Jake had an opportunity here, he played two games for our hockey club and we felt he was nowhere near what he needed to be.
"Jake needed seasoning in the American Hockey League and when we feel it's time for Jake Gardiner to come back we'll make that decision. We're not going to be influenced by anybody other than the people that are doing the assessing and involved in the organization."
On Wednesday, Gardiner participated in the Marlies morning skate prior to their AHL home game against Lake Erie. He made the NHL all-rookie team last season but has appeared in just two games this year with Toronto.
The 22-year-old entered action Wednesday having appeared in 40 games with the Marlies, registering 10 goals and 20 assists.
"We're a different team than we were last year," Carlyle said. "(Gardiner) has NHL-quality skills, he's going to play in the NHL, it's just a matter of when.
"It's our job to make sure that the timing is right and that he is performing at a level that he's probably too good for the American Hockey League. I haven't heard anybody tell me that he has."
If Toronto recalled Gardiner, it would have to make room on defence for him. Of the Leafs' eight defencemen, only Korbinian Holzer could be sent to the AHL without having to first clear waivers.
Holzer logged more than 17 minutes of ice time in Winnipeg and blocked five shots but the six-foot-three, 205-pound German isn't going to worry about something he has no bearing on.
"Obviously that waiver thing puts pressure on you . . . but it's stuff I can't control," Holzer said following Wednesday's practice. "I just try to play the best I can and help the team win.
"Everything else is out of my hands."
Another option for Toronto would be looking to veterans John-Michael Liles or Mike Komisarek on defence, both of whom have been healthy scratches of late. But Liles and Komisarek were again paired together in practice, as were the other defenceman, giving no indication any changes were looming.
Carlyle said he usually likes to take a day following a difficult loss before making such decisions.
"We try to take 24 hours and kind of get ourselves calmed down because I think I was upset more (Tuesday night) than any game this year from a coaching standpoint," he said. "We haven't had to make too many changes so this is decision time for us."
When asked if the Leafs would make lineup changes Thursday night, Carlyle said the opportunity exists and the club is considering them. The head coach expects to finalize his roster sometime Thursday morning after having told either Reimer or Scrivens on Wednesday night who would start against the Penguins.
"These decisions aren't easy ones and they're not supposed to be easy," Carlyle said. "That's part of the process and job description that comes with coaching and participating with a hockey club in the NHL."
NOTES—Forward Joffrey Lupul participated in a full practice Wednesday for the first time since suffering a broken forearm against Pittsburgh on Jan. 23. However, he has yet to be cleared for game action.