TAMPA — It really should not have been much of a surprise. After losing Game 5 and wanting to clinch the best-of-seven, first-round series against the Lightning, Toronto shook up its lineup Saturday night.
That includes putting forward Michael Bunting back in it for the first time since he was suspended three games for an illegal hit on Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak in the opener.
Bunting was a healthy scratch Thursday night in Game 5, the Maple Leafs deciding to go with the lineup that had helped them win three straight games.
Cernak, who took Bunting’s elbow to his head, is still out because of that injury.
This series started out very physical and the return of Bunting could certainly stir up emotions for the Lightning. That and unnecessary penalties, however, are something they have to protect against, forward Pat Maroon said.
“Obviously, he’s going to just be in the guys’ faces and doing his job,” Maroon said. “So, just kind of stay focused and stay on and stuff.”
Speaking for the first time since the incident, Bunting expressed remorse and said he had sent Cernak a text immediately after Game 1.
“It was unfortunate. I didn’t intend to hurt him or do that,” Bunting told reporters in Toronto. Bunting went on to say that he and Cernak had “butted heads” before and he was expecting Cernak to hit him on the play.
“I was trying to make some room for myself. I was expecting contact, and that didn’t happen,” Bunting said. “It’s unfortunate. I don’t want to see anyone get hurt. That’s not my game. He’s a good player, a great defenseman. I hope he gets better as fast as possible.”
Bunting watched from the press box while serving his suspension, which he said was harder than being on the ice.
“It’s stressful up there,” he said, “… probably more stressful than on the ice.”
Bunting’s teammates said he handled the suspension and sitting out Thursday as well as could be expected.
“Honestly, really, really impressed with how he’s handled everything,” Maple Leafs forward Alex Kerfoot said. “I think it’s a situation that you don’t want anyone to go through. ... He’s not a dirty player by any means. It was an unfortunate hit.”
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