Michael Bunting pleaded his case.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety then handed down its verdict.
The Toronto Maple Leafs winger has been suspended for the next three games of his team’s first-round playoff matchup with Tampa Bay after delivering an illegal check to the head on Lightning defenceman Erik Cernak in the series opener.
The incident occurred with 4:20 remaining in Tuesday’s second period when Bunting clipped his unsuspecting opponent up high as he went to battle for the puck.
Cernak fell backwards to the ice and needed help getting to the locker room. He did not return to the bench in Tampa’s resounding 7-3 victory.
Bunting, who plays on the Leafs’ top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, received a match penalty and a game misconduct.
The Toronto native had 23 goals and 49 points in 82 regular-season games in 2022-23.
Cernak, meanwhile, was fourth in ice time among Lightning defencemen, averaging 19 minutes 14 seconds.
Leafs blue-liner Mark Giordano said before the suspension was announced that Bunting didn’t intend to injure Cernak.
“Those two guys have played each other a long time, and they play each other hard,” the veteran defender said following Wednesday’s practice. “(Bunting’s) thinking both guys are going to sort of engage shoulder-to-shoulder, but unfortunately their guy wasn’t really in that mode of engaging, and he got hit.
“I don’t think Bunts really even looked at him. It was just one of those plays where you know who you’re playing against, and the guy knows he’s going to come at you hard. He was trying to just go shoulder-to-shoulder, get some separation, and it ended up in that.”
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe spoke earlier Wednesday about Bunting’s value to his roster.
“A guy that plays with our top players and has ability to score goals for us, plays with lots of energy,” Keefe said. “He’s come to be an important part of our team.”
And then he calmly put on his amateur psychologist’s hat in the wake of a disastrous playoff opening.
Toronto not only fell flat in Game 1 of its first-round series with the battle-tested Lightning — Keefe’s team looked like a shadow of its 111-point regular-season self in an embarrassing 7-3 loss on home ice.
Instead of the connected, committed, offensively talented and defensively responsible group that finished fourth in the NHL’s overall standings, the Leafs were a timid, unsure, sloppy bunch on a humbling, worrying Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.
“You don’t feel good about the effort or results,” Keefe said. “But you brush yourself off and get back to work.”
It was only one game, the coach and his players stressed, but their opponent has also made the Stanley Cup final three years in a row, including victories in 2020 and 2021, and topped Toronto in a razor-thin, best-of-seven matchup at the same stage last spring.
The margin for error on a team without a series victory since 2004 has already drastically shrunk.
“Important to get on the ice and be together as a group,” Keefe said following Wednesday’s brief practice. “There’s adjustments always to be made, but when your frame of mind changes a lot of things snap back into place.
“We weren’t anywhere near ourselves.”
That was certainly the case, especially in front of goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who also struggled in the spotlight.
“Our urgency has to go way, way higher,” Giordano said. “For whatever reason, we were just a step off, and it felt that way all night.
“Play with confidence, play with that swagger that we’ve had all year.”
Booed off the ice by the home fans at both intermissions and again at the final buzzer, the Leafs were down 3-0 after the first period thanks to two turnovers and a power-play goal against.
There was a brief surge in the second that saw Toronto score twice on the man advantage, but discipline and some curious officiating decisions opened the door for Tampa to score four more times, including an additional two on the power play, for the comfortable victory.
“Too many penalties,” said Marner, the setup man on all three of his team’s goals. “Letting that power play get rolling is a bad thing to do. We gotta protect our net better.
“Wasn’t the start we wanted. That’s something that we’ve really tried to emphasize this year, getting on our toes to start games. We didn’t do that.”
Tampa, meanwhile, showed there’s still plenty of gas left in the tank after a disappointing end to its regular season.
“I don’t think anything surprised us,” Giordano said. “We know what type of team they are. We had some bad, bad moments in the game individually and collectively.”
Keefe pointed out it wasn’t so much about his team’s structure. It was about understanding the gravity of the situation in the moment.
“We were tentative, we were on our heels,” he said. “That’s really not where we are or who we are, and that’s certainly not how we’ve played for the last chunk of time.”
Keefe has also seen his group respond all year.
“We’ve bounced back really well when we haven’t been ourselves,” Keefe said. “The emotions go both ways in a playoff series. It’s about us just regrouping, refocusing here, and understand the importance of (Thursday’s) game.
“And have an effort that reflects that.”
Tampa head coach Jon Cooper updated the status of three players who left Tuesday’s game with undisclosed injuries, including minute-crunching defencemen Victor Hedman and Cernak.
Hedman could be available for Game 2, but Cernak won’t play. Cooper added centre Michael Eyssimont, who took a big hit from Jake McCabe, and also won’t dress in Game 2.
The Lightning could get a lineup boost from Tanner Jeannot as he recovers from a leg injury suffered earlier this month.
“Feeling good,” said the forward. “Working hard at getting back as quick as possible.”
KNIES ON THE RISE?
With the Leafs minus Bunting until a potential Game 5, rookie forward Matthew Knies could draw into the lineup.
The 20-year-old, who signed with Toronto at the conclusion of his NCAA season, skated with Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari on Wednesday.
“It’s nice to have a guy with such experience,” Knies said of O’Reilly. “Valuable information for me.”
Keefe wouldn’t tip his hand on any lineup decisions, but might also go with 11 forwards and seven defencemen.
“He’s a great option for us,” the coach said of Knies, who has three NHL regular-season games under his belt. “He’s taken care of all that he can do in the short amount of time he’s been here.”
Calle Jarnkrok skated in Bunting’s spot on Toronto’s top line with Marner and Auston Matthews at practice.
“You win, you lose, it’s gotta go in the trash can right away,” Jarnkrok said. “We’ll be ready to roll.”
One confirmed roster lock was that Samsonov will get the nod in Game 2 after allowing six goals on 29 shots before getting the hook in favour of rookie Joseph Woll.
“He wanted to get on the ice,” Keefe said. “He was sending a message to the team about how focused he is … looks ready to get back at it.”