Maple Leafs moving on minus suspended Bunting

TORONTO – The Maple Leafs are moving on minus Michael Bunting.

They don’t have any other choice.

Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe and his players were largely tight-lipped about the three-game suspension handed to the gritty winger for his illegal check to the head on Tampa Bay defenceman Erik Cernak in Tuesday’s opener of the teams’ first-round playoff series.

“I knew he was gonna get something,” Keefe said Thursday morning ahead of Game 2 against the Lightning, who picked up an emphatic 7-3 victory in Game 1.

“That’s what the league decided … we press on.”

The incident occurred with 4:20 remaining in the second period when Bunting clipped his unsuspecting opponent up high with an elbow and upper arm as the pair turned to battle for the puck.

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Cernak fell backwards, needed help getting to the locker room and did not return to the bench.

Bunting, who usually plays on the Leafs’ top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, received a match penalty and a game misconduct.

The Leafs were adamant to reporters after game, following Wednesday’s practice and again Thursday morning that there was no intent to injure on Bunting’s part.

“You respect the decision,” Toronto defenceman Luke Schenn said. “An unfortunate play.”

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety said in its verdict handed down Wednesday night Cernak’s head was “clearly the main point of contact” and that the play was avoidable.

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“What else is there to say?” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said Thursday. “Can’t add to it or take it back. It was unfortunate. I mean, it’s unfortunate for (Bunting), too.

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“Everybody, all the way around.”

Bunting, who has walked the line in the past with his in-your-face style, had 23 goals and 49 points in 82 regular-season games in 2022-23.

“That sandpaper, the grit,” Schenn said of what the Toronto native brings. “Those are the types of guys you want in your lineup come playoff time.

“Guys that play hard and go to the front of the net and have a little edge.”

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Leafs forward Ryan O’Reilly said the rest of the group will have to step up and fill some of Bunting’s role.

“He can be a pest out there,” said the 2019 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. “He just always brings that energy for us.

“It’s a tough loss, but we do have great depth.”

Toronto rookie Matthew Knies was expected to make his NHL playoff debut Thursday with the Leafs desperate to tie the series 1-1 before the best-of-seven series shifts to Florida for the next two contests.

O’Reilly didn’t want to touch the length of the suspension that will see Bunting sit out until a potential Game 5 in Toronto on April 27.

“It is what it is,” he said. “We will miss him for those games … we just have to keep moving forward.”

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Cernak, meanwhile, was fourth in ice time among Lightning defencemen this season, averaging 19 minutes 14 seconds.

“He’s been steady there for a few years now,” said Schenn, who won the Stanley Cup with Tampa in 2020 and 2021. “Logs a ton of (penalty killing) minutes. He’s pretty good in front of the net and he gets a lot of the tough matchups.

“A key piece for them back there.”

Toronto, which has failed to advance in the post-season since 2004, has a recent history of playoff suspensions.

Former centre Nazem Kadri was banned three games for boarding in the Leafs’ 2018 first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins. Kadri then missed a total of five contests for a cross-checking suspension in the rematch the following spring.

Toronto lost both series in seven games.

Kadri was traded in July 2019 to Colorado, where he won the Cup with the Avalanche last June before signing with the Calgary Flames in free agency.

“It’s a different situation, a different team, a different player,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “We’re not going to spend any time thinking about it.”

A pending unrestricted free agent July 1, it’s possible Bunting has played his last game for the team he cheered for growing up should Toronto fall in four straight to Tampa.

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Keefe said he won’t have any issue putting his player back in the lineup when the ban ends.

“I know Michael Bunting as well as anyone,” he said. “I don’t have an issue in terms of trusting him when it comes to that.

“He’s got no history of such things.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2023.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

&© 2023 The Canadian Press

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