SUNRISE, Fla. – They were the six words the Six didn't want to hear.
“He’s going to miss some time.”
Bunting leads all NHL rookies in scoring with 23 goals and 63 points. He’s drawing more penalties than all but two other players in the league. And he’s the scrappy, chirpy, greasy complement to Toronto’s most dynamic duo.
“Bunts doesn't get enough love for what he does for us,” Mitch Marner said, after seeing his linemate go down early in the first period with what appears to be a lower-body injury.
With regulars Jake Muzzin (undisclosed), Ondrej Kase (concussion) and Rasmus Sandin (knee) already nursing injuries, MVP Auston Matthews recovering from an ailment of his own, and the playoffs starting in roughly a week, the timing of Bunting’s injury is worrisome.
But something interesting happened Saturday after Bunting hobbled down the hallway.
Keefe promoted “third-line” winger William Nylander alongside the big boys, and the super line of Nylander-Matthews-Marner dominated the Panthers territorially.
Though they came short of scoring, that trio walloped the enemy 19-3 in shot attempts and 9-1 in scoring chances, coming painfully close to scoring a third-period winner.
“It’s probably the most consistently they've played together,” Keefe added. “So, we got a look at that tonight. And I thought those guys were good. They had the puck a lot. Played on their half of the ice a lot.”
“We had a lot of really good looks. The bounces just kinda didn’t go our way tonight,” Matthews agreed.
“Obviously, we’re really familiar with Will and played with him lots on the power play, so I don't think it's much of a learning curve there. I think we have a pretty good sense of how we want to play and where each of us are out there.”
The Maple Leafs had demanded a response after Thursday’s embarrassing beatdown by the Tampa Bay Lightning. They were determined to not go 0-for-Florida this week.
Boosted by a healthy Matthews and another solid showing by No. 1 goalie Jack Campbell, they got one.
Much like last time Toronto visited this barn, the Leafs built a multi-goal lead early, then watched as the Panthers — hockey’s comeback kings — clawed back to erase that lead and extend their winning streak to a franchise-best 13 games.
“This is as competitive a group as I've ever been around," Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said beforehand. "We maybe didn't play our best games a lot of those games, but their will to push themselves to get wins or get goals has been uncanny.”
Marner scored on the night’s first shot by one-timing a smart end-boards bank pass from T.J. Brodie.
Then Justin Holl whipped a puck off Florida defender Radko Gudas and past Sergei Bobrovsky, giving Toronto a 2-0 head start after the first period.
The second period was all Panthers. Aleksander Barkov cleaned up the rebound on a dancing drive by former Leaf Mason Marchment. And Claude Giroux struck early on a slick passing sequence by Florida’s five-forward power-play unit.
The sides exchanged a flurry of rushes chances in the third before Brandon Montour buried the winner in the extra frame — thanks to another pretty primary assist from Marchment.
"They've just been running through everybody all year long," Matthews said before the game. "I'm not sure there's really a big weakness in their game.
“I know we feel confident in our group. But obviously this is a team that's been the standard of the NHL so far this year — at least in our conference for sure."
Toronto isn’t so far off that standard, however.
Encouraged by the response effort, Keefe noted that his group has not lost to the Cats in regulation and could’ve won all three regular-season matchups. He’s not wrong.
On this night, Toronto dealt with man-down adversity seamlessly and outpaced the home team 23-13 in high-danger chances, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
“We're really not playing opponents that are easy to play against. We're playing against guys that are ready to go for, hopefully, a long run — same as us,” Marner said. “So, it's an intense atmosphere out there. It's an intense game. It's a lot of fun.”
If Keefe opts to stick with Nylander-Matthews-Marner — a threesome with a combined 125 goals this season — the fun might only skyrocket.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Despite going head-to-head against Aleksander Barkov — one of the sport’s premier shutdown pivots — in his return game, Matthews tilted the ice to the tune of 84 per cent expected goals, made two takeaways, and registered a game-high six shots.
“I thought he was buzzing throughout the whole night,” Marner said.
The centre said he felt good and definitely wants to play again Sunday in Washington, but the team will see how his undisclosed injury responds before making that decision.
Matthews sits at 58 goals with three games remaining.
• Marner has racked up up 29 goals and 75 points over his past 46 games. That’s a 52-goal, 134-point pace over 82 games.
"He's a ridiculous player," Panthers coach Andrew Brunette marvelled.
"He's just so smart and really sneaky competitive. His IQ is off the charts and what he can do, how he sees the ice, how he defends … it's a little bit like (Pavel) Datsyuk with his ability to strip pucks and (be) on pucks all the time and be very deceptive in everything he does. He doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves. He's a wonderful player."
• Jonathan Huberdeau (114 points) is a “having a monster year,” Keefe pointed out. And yet? Not quite as monstrous as that of Connor McDavid (116 points), whom he’s battling for the Art Ross Trophy.
Both stars have four more games to increase their total. Can Huberdeau overthrow the king?
"It'd be great," Huberdeau said. "Obviously with McDavid, it's not easy. I mean, he drops three points every night."
The Panthers playmaker is trying not to dwell on the race or check the Oilers’ boxscore.
"It's always my brother," Huberdeau said. “He's like, ‘Ah, McDavid again!’ I'm like, ‘You can stop texting me. It's fine.’ ”
• Three on one:
• Having locked up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the “Catlantic” Division champs (Florida’s phrase, not mine) have begun implementing some load management. Patric Hornqvist, 35, sat out Tuesday to rest.