TORONTO – The Scarborough boy who grew up idolizing Darcy Tucker, modelling himself after Wendel Clark, and cheering for Tie Domi finally squeezed into the Scotiabank Arena to take in his first Toronto Maple Leafs playoff game Monday.
Sure, Michael Bunting — sidelined since April 23 with an undisclosed injury — would’ve preferred to be strapping on the foil himself for Game 1, but the Calder Trophy candidate took joy in cheering on the boys through five goals he couldn’t help generate and 113 minutes of penalties he couldn’t draw.
“I felt like a little fan up there,” Bunting beamed Tuesday, following Tuesday’s upbeat practice. “It was unreal. It got me going. I was standing up. I was cheering. And it was pretty exciting to see that. That was actually my first ever time watching the Leafs in a playoff game.”
Provided his injury doesn’t flare up too much overnight, Bunting will climb down from the pressbox and join Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on Toronto’s top trio for Game 2 Wednesday.
“He's obviously a big part of that line in terms of producing offence, but also just how he competes in the corners, wins battles. He likes to be involved,” Morgan Rielly said. “We're looking forward to getting him back.”
Bunting’s return to the series will shift placeholder Alexander Kerfoot down to John Tavares’ second line and energy jolt Ondrej Kase to the fourth line, replacing winger Kyle Clifford — who was suspended one game for boarding Ross Colton.
A Bunting-for-Clifford swap instantly deepens a Leafs’ lineup that torched goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy something awful in the series opener.
Bunting appeared to suffer a right leg injury during the Leafs’ most recent trip to Florida. The details of that ailment he prefers to “keep it to myself right now,” but he’s pleased with his recovery time.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Bunting said. “I feel pretty good.”
The 26-year-old rookie spent his developing seasons in Arizona and has yet to taste the NHL post-season. No wonder he’s salivating.
“A player like Bunts is made for playoffs. I think he thrives on it,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I think he plays a lot of regular season games like they’re playoff games. And that's part of what makes him successful — because he's playing with a higher level of intensity all the time.
“That evens out a little bit in playoff time because others bring their game up, but I wouldn't be surprised if Bunts has another level to get to as well.”
The raucous energy and electric environment inside the barn Monday bled into some aggressive decisions between and after whistles.
In addition to getting a game misconduct for his reckless hit on Colton, Clifford was suspended another game. Wayne Simmonds, Corey Perry, and Pat Maroon were each dinged $2,500 for unsportsmanlike conduct in a brawl sparked by the Lightning after the scoreboard got cooked.
Maroon pounced on Rielly and delivered multiple blows to the Leafs No. 1 defenceman, who hadn’t fought since 2016.
Maroon declined comment on his role in the shenanigans.
Rielly, who retaliated by bloodying the face of Jan Rutta, downplayed the extra curriculars.
“Just intensity. It's the first game of playoffs. I don’t think there was anything offside,” Rielly said. His eye wore the marks of Maroon’s fist. “Both teams wanting to win, wanting to hold their ground, not wanting to back down, all that sort of stuff.”
Rielly was asked: “How’s your hand?”
“Fine,” Reilly responded. Yet his punching hand never left the pocket of his hoodie when the cameras were rolling.
Watching up high, Bunting appreciated Rielly’s willingness to indulge in the uncomfortable.
“He stood up for himself, so all the guys were really happy for him. I'm really proud of him.
“That was a really cool thing to see — that he had that in his pocket. You don’t really ever see that from Mo.”
Keefe was decidedly less thrilled to see his 68-point play-driver batter his knuckles and get plucked by a heavyweight like Maroon.
“You don't like to see those kinds of things, guys that aren't used to being involved in that. But they do get dragged into it at times. That's the reality of it,” Keefe said. “I think it was obviously somewhat calculated in that sense. But at the same time, we can debate it… but it is part of the game, and we're trying to win in the game and how it's being played. So, whatever the circumstances are, our players have to be ready for it.”
Bunting, for one, has been ready for this since he was a boy, enraptured by Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin’s springtime battles.
“You're going to be very emotional,” Bunting said of his upcoming debut. “It’s going to be very physical, and you can't let that take you off your game.”
One-Timers: William Nylander and Pierre Engvall did not participate in Leafs practice, but Keefe assured both forwards would play in Game 2.
• Injured goalie Petr Mrazek participated in his first practice since suffering his latest groin injury, but Keefe says there is no rush on that front and he’s content with Erik Källgren backing up Jack Campbell….
• Rutta was present and accounted for at Lightning practice….
• After going 0-for-5 on the power-play in Game 1, the Lightning replaced Pat Maroon with Nick Paul on their second unit. That was Cooper’s only change.