With forward Michael Bunting eligible to return, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has some roster decisions to make ahead of Game 5 on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But one thing’s for certain, rookie forward Matthew Knies will not be coming out of the lineup.
“He’s done a terrific job for us,” Keefe said of Knies on Tuesday morning. “He’s a guy who definitely has earned his spot and the opportunity to continue to play for us.”
Knies entered the lineup in Game 2 of the first-round playoff series after Bunting received a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Lightning defenceman Erik Cernak in the series opener.
The 20-year-old Knies has one assist, four shots, nine hits and is plus-2 in three playoff games – all Toronto wins.
Knies is also making important plays off the stat sheet. With Toronto trailing Tampa Bay 2-1 midway through the second period of Monday night’s win, Knies saved a goal by clearing the puck off the goal line after a scramble in front of the net.
The way Knies has performed makes reintegrating Bunting into the lineup a little less clear-cut for Keefe, who said he’ll use the next couple of days to choose who takes the ice.
“With Bunting being available obviously it’s a very good option for us, he’s a good player for us,” Keefe said. “It’s not as simple of a decision as it may have been earlier in the series or at a different time.
“We’ve got some time here now today and tomorrow to sort through that and make that decision.”
Knies, a second-round draft pick in 2021, joined the Maple Leafs out of the University of Minnesota on an entry-level deal and produced one assist in three games at the end of the regular season. He had 42 points in 40 games for the NCAA’s Golden Gophers this season and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award given to the top player in men’s college hockey.
Bunting, meanwhile, played in all 82 regular-season games for Toronto this season, totalling 23 goals and 26 assists, while usually playing on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
The Maple Leafs have a 3-1 series lead over the Lightning after back-to-back comeback wins in Games 3 and 4, and could advance to the second round with a win on Thursday in Toronto.
A victory would give the Maple Leafs their first playoff series win since 2004.