Maple Leafs captain Tavares on feisty Bunting: ‘We love him’

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Evander Kane and Michael Bunting received double minors for roughing in the third period on Saturday. Kane continued to take shots at Bunting after the game. 

“He likes to dive and embellish,” the Oilers winger told reporters following Toronto’s 7-4 win. “You want to get that out of the game but they [officials] prevent guys from the consequences of those actions. A lot of the time they get in the way, sometimes, the refs. I think fighting is a great deterrent to those type of players and action and it just prevents guys from having to answer the bell and he’s a perfect example of that.”

Bunting’s response? 

“I don’t really care, to be honest,” the Leafs winger said with a smile. “I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Yeah, [he] made a few comments, but I’m not really the type to bring it to the media. So, I’m just going to leave it at that.”

“Bunts is just trying to play hard,” said captain John Tavares. “Obviously, [Kane] has his own opinion, but I think Bunts is trying to play hard and be on the fine line. He plays with a lot of emotion. We love him. We think he’s a great teammate and that’s all I really have to say about it.” 

Before butting heads with Kane, Bunting received an embellishment penalty in the second period on the same play that Ryan McLeod was whistled for interference. 

“I just went to forecheck and he got in my way and he hit me,” said Bunting, who was fined for embellishment last season. “But, you know what, it’s the refs call and you just gotta keep playing.”

both Bunting and McLeod go to the box— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 12, 2023

Bunting, meanwhile, blamed Kane for starting the wrestling match that led to the roughing penalties.  

“I was breaking out and he got in my way and kind of held me all the way down,” Bunting said. “I just tried to get to the net because I knew we were on the power play so I wanted to get to my position and the rest unfolded.”

Bunting trailed off. Is he holding back because he doesn’t want to risk angering officials or the league? 

“Nope,” he said quickly. “I’ve got nothing to say so moving on from that.”

As for the idea that the referees are shielding him from a fight? 

“If it comes to fighting, it comes to fighting,” said Bunting, who hasn’t dropped the gloves since his time in the American Hockey League in 2019. “I’m not against fighting. I still think it’s part of our game and it’s going to be for a while. You just have to protect yourself and be competitive every single shift and that’s what I try to do.”

the refs didn’t call any of this lol— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 12, 2023

Bunting is an expert agitator. It’s always been part of his game. Last season, he drew 45 penalties and took 32. This year, though, his penalty differential is only plus-four. He’s second in drawn penalties (37) but also third in penalties taken (33). 

“I play on the line and I can get over it a little bit,” the 27-year-old from Scarborough, Ont. acknowledges. “I’ve been trying to focus on not putting the team short-handed and obviously both penalties last night [resulted in a] 4-on-4 so I feel like I didn’t really hurt the team.”

Bunting actually came out ahead on the penalty ledger by drawing a high-sticking call on Darnell Nurse.  

In the 10 games prior to Saturday, Bunting only took one penalty.  

“I try to be disciplined out there, but also play on that line, because that’s my game,” he continued. “That’s my game: to be competitive every single shift. I want to bring that because if I don’t, I’m off my game.”

At times this season, Bunting has shown disdain for the officials over what he considered to be missed calls. But on Saturday, he didn’t really protest after the embellishment penalty. 

“I try not to let things bug me right now,” he said. “I’m moving on from it.”

It’s not easy for Bunting to find the right balance in his game at the moment and coach Sheldon Keefe recently said the contract-year winger was dealing with a “mental block.” As a result, Bunting was demoted off the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner during the recent road trip. 

“I’ve just felt that line needed change,” Keefe explained on Saturday morning. “Bunts, to me, his ability to make plays, in particular coming out of our end through the neutral zone, hasn’t been at the same level as it has been when he’s at his best. Things tend to snowball and frustration sets in, both with he and his linemates, as plays get stalled and they can’t get going and sometimes guys need a little bit of a break from each other.”

After scoring on Tuesday in New Jersey, Bunting was on a line with Tavares for Saturday’s game and remained with Tavares and William Nylander at Sunday’s practice. 

“I’m trying to get my rhythm going again,” he said. “Be competitive every night and get to my spots I excel at and get to the front of the net and compete. It’s going to be game by game and I’m looking forward to getting this all back and putting this behind me.”

Saturday’s game between the top two teams in Canada featured plenty of intensity. In the second period, Tavares got into it with Vincent Desharnais. The Oilers defenceman cross-checked Tavares in front of the net and the centre responded with a hack to the hands. Both players went to the box. 

On Sunday, the department of player safety fined Tavares $5,000, the most allowed by the collective bargaining agreement, for the slash. 

“Heat of the moment,” Tavares said. “Just have to control your emotions better in that situation, regardless of what I may feel or something going on that I don’t like. I’m better than that and I learn from it … Obviously, I got to be better in that scenario, controlling [my] emotions better, so that’s on me.”

so the refs let things go, then call the penalty on both (again)— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 12, 2023

However, Keefe didn’t mind the play. 

“You want to see guys be disciplined, especially in a game like that, and maintain their composure and yet at times emotions are high,” the coach said. “On the top players, in particular, a lot of players take a lot of liberties on them and, especially in tight games, it seems not much of it gets called. Sometimes players have to take it into their own hands in cases like that and stand up for themselves and, for that reason, I have no problem with it. I have no concerns about John’s ability to keep his composure at key times and not cross the line.”

General manager Kyle Dubas made adding competitive players a focus during his deadline shopping period and, so far, Noel Acciari is delivering as advertised. The gritty forward, who was acquired from the St. Louis Blues along with Ryan O’Reilly on Feb. 17, scored twice and landed a game high five hits on Saturday. 

“A guy that just plays so hard every night,” raved Matthews. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is, he gives it his all. Just the physicality that he brings to our team has been incredible. He’s changed games and changed momentum with just laying the body, throwing a couple big hits and getting us to wake up a little bit. He’s a bulldog out there.”

Acciari received the player-of-the-game belt in the dressing room following Saturday’s win. The man nicknamed “Cookie” because of his love for the snack is emerging as a monster in the Leafs bottom six. He leads the team with 35 hits in the 10 games since joining Toronto. 

“He was a beast last night,” said Bunting. “He’s a beast every night since he’s been here. He’s strong. He’s physical. He has that scoring touch and he showed it last night.”

“He seems to always be in the right position,” observed goalie Matt Murray. “He defends hard. He hits. He’s tough. He’s been scoring and he’s just a hard worker. He’s got leadership qualities. You can’t say enough about him.”

Marner leads the NHL in takeaways this season and showed off that skill with two steals in the second period on Saturday. With Toronto down 3-1, a forechecking Marner picked off a McLeod pass in the slot. 

“I just tried to put pressure on,” the all-star right winger said. “I realized it was a forward so just tried to make him feel uncomfortable and read the play.”

Marner proceeded to pull off an incredible move to beat goaltender Stuart Skinner. 

Moments later, Marner knocked down a Desharnais pass before springing Nylander for the game-tying goal. 

“If you are on the other side, you certainly say it’s a bad turnover, but I don’t believe those things happen by accident,” Keefe said. “In some cases, Mitch, when he is approaching, he doesn’t come in straight lines. He comes at angles. He may fake it himself and that might, in some cases, confuse a player who will talk himself out of option A and move to option B and then things go bad.”

Marner seems to be getting better and better at this as he moves into the prime of his career. Marner is registering 3.83 takeaways per 60 minutes, which is up from 2.87 last season. 

“He’s just so smart,” said Matthews. “When you’re a high-end player like that you kind of think about what the other players are anticipating really well … He’s very sneaky.”

Matthews also pointed out Marner’s elite edges help him outwit the opposition. 

Marner traces the talent back to his childhood. 

“I trained a lot for it when I was a kid,” he revealed. “Just trying to be good with my stick and always have it on the ice. Just trying to read people and let my instincts kick in … just trying to be hard on the puck and make it uncomfortable for people when I’m coming down on them.” 

“It is a lot of instinct, but I think there are certainly tells,” Keefe said. “Some players are able to pick up on those and process them quicker and better than others. Mitch is at the top end of that.”

Murray allowed three goals on the first nine shots on Saturday as the Oilers built an early lead. 

“I felt better as the game went on,” the 28-year-old said. “I didn’t feel great in the first period timing-wise, but as the game went on I settled in and felt pretty good.” 

The third goal came off the stick of Connor McDavid, who beat Murray with a five-hole shot even though the goalie was ready for it.

“I’ve noticed he’s been going five hole a lot this year,” Murray said. “You just try to be as patient as you can there. It’s one of those plays where just with his speed and his skill he’s able to create space for himself and come right down the slot. It’s kind of a patience game at that point. You just try and hold your patience. A guy like that, he makes a good play and puts it five hole. Yeah, it’s a good player making a good play.” 

Murray will get the start again on Monday with the Buffalo Sabres in town. 

“There are a couple of things at play,” Keefe explained. “There is a lot of hockey this week. Both goalies are going to play. But I do think it is important for Matt to get a little bit more consistency in the net rather than large gaps between starts.”

Murray has played twice, the last two Saturdays, since returning from an ankle injury. 

“Maybe it is influenced by the fact that I thought he got better throughout the game last night,” Keefe said of the decision on Monday’s starter. “There is that.”

Murray finished the night with 22 saves on 26 shots while picking up his first win since Jan. 11. 

Murray worked out with goalie coach Curtis Sanford on Sunday, but didn’t stay out for the main practice. 

“Our goalie ice is really key,” he said. “It’s something we do every day and that’s something that’s really important for staying sharp. That way you can get more game-like reps. In practice it’s all just kind of down the pipe so that goalie ice is extremely important.”

Ilya Samsonov last played on Tuesday in New Jersey against the Devils and projects to get back in soon. The Leafs also have games on Wednesday (vs. the Colorado Avalanche), Friday (vs. the Carolina Hurricanes) and Saturday (at the Ottawa Senators). 

“We are going to use both guys,” Keefe promised. “Sammy is not quite at 100 per cent right now, either. It just makes a little more sense for me to give him a little more time and give Murray some more consistency in the net.”

Samsonov seemed fine during Sunday’s practice and was one of the last players on the ice.

“Playoff is coming,” he noted. “This more important time. How you prepare for playoff is really important, what you doing in the practice, maybe what you eat … You try to get more clean food. Everything. More mental. It’s hard to do if you, like, not doing great before the playoff, you don’t know change in one day. It’s not working like that. You have to prepare for this time.”

Luke Schenn and his wife welcomed their third child on Friday in Vancouver. The defenceman, who has been skating on his own the last week, is expected to rejoin the team soon, Keefe said. 

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