A few hours before his hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety, Michael Bunting wore a grey jersey at practice on Wednesday as the Maple Leafs set out to fix the multitude of things that went wrong in an embarrassing loss to the Lightning in the first game of the playoffs.
Those sweaters are handed out to team members who are not expected to play in the next game. Bunting looked a little lonely out there with only Wayne Simmonds and Conor Timmins doing drills in matching ash-coloured tops among a sea of other players.
It was clear Toronto expected Bunting to be handed a suspension – as it turns out, rightly so – after he launched an elbow into the face of Erik Cernak, a Tampa Bay defenceman, on Tuesday night. Cernak looked woozy as he was helped off the ice and has been ruled out of Thursday’s Game 2 at Scotiabank Arena because of an apparent head injury.
Bunting will have to sit out Games 2, 3 and 4 as a result of the discipline meted out by the league. The Maple Leafs trailed 4-2 in the second period when the incident occurred. Bunting shouted at officials as the hit was being reviewed, after which he was handed a match penalty and a five-minute major for an illegal check to the head.
The Lightning then scored two quick goals and coasted to an altogether too easy 7-3 victory.
Toronto’s performance was so shabby that its coach, Sheldon Keefe, decided not to give the players Wednesday off. They played tentatively at the start on Tuesday, turned the puck over in their own end and then defended poorly in front of the net on two early goals and allowed four more on power plays. The Leafs ended up being booed at the end of each period in their home rink.
“It’s a good chance to bring everybody together and rinse everything out and get in a better frame of mind,” Keefe said of Wednesday’s Kumbaya team gathering. “It is tough coming in today. You don’t feel good about the effort and the results but you brush yourself off and get back to work.
“Obviously we weren’t anything near our normal selves last night.”
In two seasons Bunting has shown the ability to create havoc around the opposing team’s net but lately has been plagued by a lack of discipline and immaturity. The Lightning recognizes that and on Tuesday he was preyed upon by Corey Perry, who has carved out a long career as one of the game’s best instigators.
At one point Bunting turned and feigned swinging his stick at Perry – this was not unprovoked, mind you, but unnecessary. Another time, Bunting slapped at a puck in Andrei Vasilevskiy’s glove and then exaggeratedly threw his hands up in the air when a teammate came to the Lightning goalie’s defence.
As he waited to hear the league’s decision on Wednesday, Keefe seemed resigned that bad news was coming. In recent years they had another player – Nazem Kadri – suspended during the postseason three times.
“Michael is a guy who plays with our top players, has an ability to score goals, displays lots of energy and has come to be an important player for our team for sure,” Keefe said after a short workout at the Ford Performance Centre. “He has put himself in a bad spot.”
Earlier this month Bunting – who had 23 goals and 26 assists in 82 games this season – received a 10-minute game misconduct against Detroit, and a week before that was sat down during a game by Keefe for ignoring him on the bench. And now he has put his teammates in a difficult position against a veteran team that has won two of the past three Stanley Cups and reached the finals in the other.
A left wing, Bunting started on the first line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on Tuesday. At Wednesday’s practice, Calle Jarnkrok was moved up from third line right wing to take his place. But that also necessitated additional shuffling that involved Alexander Kerfoot, John Tavares, Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari.
It made room, too, for 20-year-old rookie Matthew Knies, who skated at left wing during practice on the third line with O’Reilly and Acciari.
Knies, a second-round draft pick in 2021, appeared in three regular-season games after joining Toronto from the University of Minnesota.
“He is a great option for us,” Keefe said. “In the games he played he did a good job. He has taken care of all he could do in the short amount of time he has been here.”
Knies, who was a finalist this year for the award given to the NCAA’s top player, was excited at the prospect of lining up for his first postseason game.
“Every kid dreams of playing in the playoffs and the Stanley Cup, so I am super stoked,” Knies said. “It’s kind of crazy. I haven’t had a chance to even sit down and think about it.”
After just one game, Toronto is already desperate. It travels to Tampa for games on Saturday and Monday and without a win in Game 2 will be facing a doomsday situation. The Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since 2004, the longest such drought in the NHL.
On Wednesday, they were the target of plenty of dark humour on Twitter.
Even Arlene Dickinson, the Dragon’s Den panelist who lives in Calgary, gave them a gibe.
“Has anyone ever thought of placing therapy dogs outside of Leafs games?,” she wrote. “Seems like an untapped market.”