Bunting's return creates sudden lineup puzzle for Leafs
In case you haven’t heard by now, the Toronto Maple Leafs are on the precipice of their first playoff series win in 19 years.
Fresh off three straight wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto holds a 3-1 series lead and has a chance to close out the series on home ice in Thursday’s Game 5.
While they haven’t looked perfect — needing a pair of overtime wins and third-period comebacks over the last two games to get things going — they’ve found the right mix of players to get the job done to date.
But they might have to find a way to fit in one more player.
Enter Michael Bunting, eligible to return to Thursday night’s lineup after a three-game suspension for a hit on Erik Cernak in Game 1 of the series.
In the regular season, Bunting had 23 goals and 26 assists in 82 games for the Leafs this season, his second with the team. He’s the team’s fifth-leading scorer and has been a staple of the team’s top six over the last two seasons.
The Leafs are also 3-0 without him in the playoffs so far, and 0-1 with him.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe admitted that it’s a bit of a challenge to figure out if Bunting will be returning to his usual spot on the Leafs’ top line alongside Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.
“It’s not as easy or as simple as a decision as it as it may have been earlier in the series… [Bunting is] a very good option for us, he’s a good player for us,” Keefe told reporters today.
Calle Jarnkrok has been taking Bunting’s place, picking up a goal and an assist in his four games.
With Bunting’s suspension, Toronto had the silver lining of introducing rookie forward Matthew Knies to his first taste of NHL postseason action in Game 2, slotting him on the third line alongside Noel Acciari and Ryan O’Reilly.
Knies hasn’t found the back of the net but has picked up an assist in three games while posting a 53.41% expected goals rate at 5v5, fourth best amongst Toronto forwards.
“Matthew Knies is certainly not coming out of the lineup. He’s done a terrific job for us. So he’s a guy that’s definitely earned his earned his spot and the opportunity to continue to play for us there,” Keefe added.
So where does Bunting go? Back to the top line? Alongside John Tavares and William Nylander? Or does he even remain in the press box so as not to mess with the team’s winning chemistry? Anything’s on the table as of right now, it seems.
“We’ve got a group of guys that have played real hard… we’ve got some time here now, today and tomorrow to sort through that,” Keefe added.
Whoever’s in the lineup, Keefe seems confident that his team is up to the challenge to close the series out.
“The excitement of playing playoff hockey and everything that comes with it brings out the best in competitors. And that’s what we want to be, are guys that rise up to those challenges and those occasions. I think all throughout our lineup, we’ve had some really good moments from a lot of different people with various status on our team,” Keefe added.
Puck drop for Game 5 is set for 7 pm ET on Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena.