Bunting can’t wait to get a taste of Toronto’s playoff atmosphere in grueling Tampa-Toronto series

TORONTO — Michael Bunting had never seen a Maple Leafs playoff game in person until Monday night.

If things continue to go as planned, the Toronto native will be in the thick of the action for his second.

Bunting took part in Tuesday’s practice alongside regular teammates Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for the first time since suffering an undisclosed injury on April 23.

And the fiery winger’s impending return _ whether in Wednesday’s Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning or later in the series _ should add another layer of angst and intrigue to a first-round game. which already boiled over late in the Leafs’ resounding 5-0 opening night win.

“A player like Bunts is made for the playoffs,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said after Tuesday’s brief on-ice session. “He thrives on that, and I think he plays a lot of regular season games like they’re playoff games. That’s part of what makes him successful, because he plays with a higher intensity all the time.

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“It balances out a bit come playoff time because others are raising their game. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Bunts had another level.

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A 26-year-old rookie playing for his hometown team, Bunting never got to see former Leafs captain Mats Sundin face players like his Ottawa Senators counterpart Daniel Alfredsson in their battles. playoff classics as a kid.

But he finally got a taste of Scotiabank Arena’s raucous post-season atmosphere from a private suite above the ice on Monday.

“It was playoff hockey,” said Bunting, who has 23 goals and 63 points in 79 regular season games. “I was sweating up there.”

Getting a player of Bunting’s skill set _ he provides tireless work and puck recovery alongside ultra-skilled Matthews and Marner _ back in the fold will be a big plus as the Leafs prepare for a response from the two-time champions in Stanley Cup title.

“A guy who plays hard,” Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “He gets into corners, wins battles. He likes to be involved.

“I can’t wait to get it back.”

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Rielly bore some of the superficial scars from Monday’s third period, which included a line-up brawl where the star defenseman was first grabbed and hit by Pat Maroon.

After the massive Tampa winger and Toronto defender were separated, Rielly unleashed a series of blows to Jan Rutta’s face into a cliff that left the Tampa defender with a gash in the forehead.

Rielly was caught by television cameras examining his bloodied right hand in the penalty area immediately after the skirmishes. He trained on Tuesday but kept the appendix in his pocket throughout his media availability as he repeatedly tried to downplay the incident.

“It’s obviously not something I know too much about,” Rielly said of the glove drop. “Just a little melee?” I didn’t think there was anything offside.

Keefe, who predicted a “borderline violent” streak ahead of Game 1, said all of his players needed to be ready for times like Monday’s punches.

“You don’t like to see that kind of stuff?” guys who aren’t used to being involved in it, but you get (dragged) into it sometimes,” the coach said. “I think it was obviously, you know, somewhat calculated in that way.

“But that’s part of the game, and we try to win in the game and how it’s played.”

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Maroon declined to comment on what led up to the fight, but said there was a good chance the bad blood would continue.

“I have to be ready and play an intense hockey game,” he said. “And just go out there and do our thing.”

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The Lightning’s scorching power play failed to gain momentum in a five-minute major for the boarding handed to Kyle Clifford early in Monday’s first period _ the winger was rated for a game misconduct and suspended one game by the NHL _ before later giving up a handed short goal.

“We were probably a little lazy in some areas,” Cooper said. “We were hoping for a few games instead of working for some games. When riding like our power play has been for a while, when you turn around you are expected to go to center, not to chase a breakaway.

“Stuff that we obviously can’t continue or it’s going to be a short streak, but I don’t expect that.”

Bunting, meanwhile, was hoping to get his first glimpse of live Toronto playoff action in Game 1.

If that happens on Wednesday, he knows there’s a line he, like everyone else in the high-stakes scrimmage, will have to live by to be effective and remain available for his team.

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“I can’t get too high on the emotional highs,” he said. “It’s going to be very emotional, it’s going to be very physical.

“You can’t let that take you away from your game.”

KASE ON THE CASE

Ondrej Kase returned to the Toronto roster on Monday after missing the last 20 games with a concussion.

“Coming back after an injury is never easy,” said the winger. “But the crowd was amazing? They helped me.”

Kase, who has a history of head injuries, impressed his trainer after six weeks on the shelf

“He gives us everything he has on the forecheck, backcheck and puck battles,” Keefe said after breaking down the video from the first game. “Glad he not only played the game and got through the game, but did it with confidence.”

Kase also thanked members of the Toronto media for electing him as the team nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

“Very big for me,” he said. “I’m really excited for this.”

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