In those rushed minutes between securing a 4-3 shootout win in Las Vegas Tuesday and hopping a short charter to Arizona to play Wednesday, a sly grin emerged under Matthews’ moustache in anticipation of Bunting’s return to the desert.
“We’re expecting big things. He’s been talking about this game for a long time. Should be a pretty big video tribute for him and all that stuff,” teased Matthews, trying to play it straight.
A big video tribute for a loyal AHL winger who was given all of 26 NHL games before being allowed to walk out the door and sign to a much deeper team for a whopping $950,000 a year?
“Yeah, I don’t think there’ll be a video tribute. That’s pretty funny he said that,” Bunting responded, cracking up.
“You know, they treated me great there. And it’s definitely going to be a bittersweet moment going back there because I’ve made a lot of friendships along the way. I was there for six or seven years. So, it’s a second home for me.”
A second home for Bunting, and a first home for his centreman, who still trains in the sun all summer.
On and off the ice, the Scarborough-Scottsdale connection is alive and well.
Matthews and Bunting hadn’t met until Leafs training camp in the fall, but they discovered they had a mutual friend and bonded quickly, spending plenty of time together away from the rink.
That chemistry translated almost instantly when coach Sheldon Keefe promoted the penalty-drawing, crease-crashing late-blooming Bunting to the top line.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, and every single night he’s bringing his game, so I know I got to bring mine,” said Bunting, whose seven goals and 21 points make him one of the sport’s best bargain signings.
“It gives kids someone to look up to, knowing that he did grow up in Arizona as well, and he’s now playing in the NHL. So, anything is possible — even though you’re in the desert and hockey’s not the biggest thing there. I think he’s brought hockey to the desert and has built it up tremendously. So, I’m sure he’s really excited to go back.”
Matthews lights up whenever discussing his homecoming nights. And this time, he’ll be toting an eight-road-game goal streak into town with him.
“It’s exciting to go back and play where you grew up. I know they’re extremely proud. So, it’s always a game that I got circled on my calendar,” Matthews sayid “I love going back home and spending time there — and playing in front of friends of families is a big deal for me.”
After salvaging three points in two high-paced overtime games against Stanley Cup contenders Colorado and Vegas, the Maple Leafs might otherwise be at risk of a trap game playing a rested but rebuilding team on the sluggish half of a back-to-back.
But Bunting’s return to town as The One That Got Away and Matthews’ showcase as The Local Boy Done Good should add incentive.
“I’m hoping that kind of stuff is something that we can rally around,” Keefe says.
“We should be having no issues as we get ready to play a game again [Wednesday] night. And a good clean game — because we haven’t played a clean game here yet on this trip.”
Mrazek’s fresh start begins now
Petr Mrazek’s Maple Leafs career had endured more false starts than a 100-metre race run by eight four-year-olds hopped up on Red Bull.
While Toronto’s 1A/1B goaltending strategy appears to have gone the way of NHLers at the Olympics, the extremely well-rested Mrazek must seize this opportunity against a weak team to gather confidence.
The Czech signed a three-year deal in the summer but has been kept on the bench due to a pair of groin injuries, a prolonged COVID pause, and the all-star performance of his tandem mate, Jack Campbell.
As Keefe hands backup Mrazek his first game action in 32 days, the coach likes to view Wednesday in Arizona as an unofficial restart to the veteran’s campaign.
“It’s sort of like a new season for him. It’s been so long since he’s played,” Keefe said. “He very much should be looking at it as a fresh start here.
“Our schedule is going to heat up down the stretch for sure. We have a ton of hockey left to play here in this season, and we’re going to need Petr.”
Kase can hang in the top six
Certainly, the Maple Leafs miss Mitch Marner — who’s now a week deep into COVID protocol — but as far as right-shot replacements go, Matthews is happy to have a healthy Ondrej Kase on his wing.
“He hounds pucks,” Matthews said. “He’s got a lot of speed. He’s an easy guy to play with. He makes plays. He works hard, and he’s really good in open space.”
All those traits were on display at T-Mobile, despite Kase coming off an undisclosed injury he suffered in the gym last week. He made a sweet pass to Bunting below the goal line, who in turn set up Matthews for the backdoor tuck.
“It’s sick to play with him,” a smiling Kase said. “Like, he’s an unbelievable player, so I enjoy every moment.”
Even though he’s missed a few games due to various bangs and bruises, the “buzzsaw” (Jason Spezza’s term) has thrived in this rebound campaign.
How wonderful to see a player who doesn’t take a single shift for granted.
“I’m actually, to be honest, really excited with my game,” said Kase, extending his point streak to seven games.
“Before the season, I didn’t know what’s going on with my body — and now I’m still in the show. I enjoy every moment.”
The obligatory COVID check
While Marner and Pierre Engvall have yet to join the Leafs on the road, the good news is the number of players on Toronto’s roster who haven’t served their quarantine can be counted on one hand.
“We got four or five players that haven’t gotten it yet. So, it’s one of those deals where you’re pretty much powerless. If you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it. I’m just cruising,” says Justin Holl, one of the untouched.
“I really don’t think about it day to day, but maybe long term, you’re like, ‘Oh, I would hate to get it at a really bad time [in the season].’ ”
Meanwhile, the Coyotes cancelled practice Monday as head coach André Tourigny, goalie coach Corey Schwab, goalie Scott Wedgewood, and defencemen Jakob Chychrun, Anton Stralman and Cam Dinnen had all been placed in the protocol.
Take the over.