The Toronto Maple Leafs’ winger Michael Bunting is set to return to the lineup for Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. His three-game suspension has now been served, and it’s likely he’ll return to the ice.
In truth, depending on how the Maple Leafs feel about his penalty, they might sit him on Thursday. I can think of a couple of pragmatic reasons to do so. However, anger isn’t likely one of them. Given how well Matthew Knies has worked out, that fact has to mediate any anger that might have been leveled toward Bunting had the team suffered a worse fate.
Bunting Likely to Settle Back into the Lineup
So, despite having scored only a single goal during his last eight games, wise money pencils Bunting into the lineup. In fact, there’s a good chance he’ll even skate on the top line again with Auston Matthews and probably Mitch Marner. Sort of like the coach giving a player who made an on-ice error going over the board even sooner than if he hadn’t erred.
So, the question for Thursday night is this: If Bunting comes in, who goes out?
Matthew Knies’ Play Has Impacted Bunting’s Return
The emergence of Matthew Knies factors into the Maple Leafs’ decision about whether to keep Bunting on the top line. Knies has been playing well. He’s also earned the trust of the coaching staff, which was apparent with the fact that he’s been out on the ice battling when the moments are most crucial. He’s also played well with Ryan O’Reilly.
He was on for Alex Kerfoot’s game-winner in Game 4. And it was Knies stick that reached a puck that was headed into the Maple Leafs’ net and steered it to safety. If it were just Knies vs. Bunting, I have a feeling that Knies might win out. Knies really has been that good.
That said, there are other players the coaching staff might pull to insert Bunting. But who?
Michael Bunting Is an Important Addition to the Maple Leafs Lineup
Bunting has been an important addition to the team since his signing two off-seasons ago. Although the team has won all three games he’s missed, it doesn’t mean that they would not have been better were he in the lineup.
One key reason Bunting’s been so valuable to the Maple Leafs is that he adds scoring depth to the total team lineup. With Bunting in the lineup, the Maple Leafs potentially have three strong lines instead of two. That gives them more offensive firepower and makes them harder to defend.
Bunting works hard, if not always smart. He’s able to create on the ice and he can score. His return to the lineup could significantly improve the Maple Leafs and move the dial ever so slightly toward the team’s ability to succeed.
So, Who Should Come Out of the Lineup for Bunting?
The question now is who should come out of the lineup to make room for Bunting. NHL insider Elliotte Friedman suggests that it’s unlikely that the Maple Leafs would take out a center. That leaves Alex Kerfoot in, as well as Noah Acciari.
One of the most likely candidates, according to Friedman, is Sam Lafferty. He’s been fast on the ice, but he hasn’t translated that speed into scoring. Zach Aston-Reese has put some points on the board as well as has played solid defense. That’s who I would choose to replace for the moment.
The Importance of Trust in Playoff Hockey
Ultimately, the decision about who to play and who to sit might just come down to which player is the most trusted. In playoff hockey, coaches must be able to trust their players to perform in high-pressure situations. At the same time, players also must trust each other to execute the game plan.
Bunting already has shown that he can be trusted to perform in clutch moments – that is, until the over-the-line penalty. On one hand, his return to the lineup could boost the team’s offense and overall ability. On the other hand, if he’s learned which side of the line to play on insofar as his physicality goes, that is crucial as well.
My Thinking Is that Bunting Hits the Lineup for Thursday
I believe Bunting is likely to return to the Maple Leafs lineup. I also believe it will be Lafferty leaving.
Bunting can help the team push toward overall playoff success. He can make good hockey plays.
However, if Bunting returns, he will be tested by the Lightning. He’d likely be a moving target for a team likely trying to goad him into another explosion. If Bunting does play, he’ll likely be bruised everywhere after the game.
There Are Reasons Why Bunting Might Sit
On the other hand, for that reason (he’d be a target), Bunting playing might also become a distraction to/for the game. Would that help the Maple Leafs or the Lightning?
I can see a pragmatic Sheldon Keefe “resting” Bunting for another game in the hopes that this series might be over. Then Bungint could start fresh with the next team up.
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