Toronto Maple Leafs forward Michael Bunting has been suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak.
With both players side-by-side in pursuit of the puck, Bunting delivered a hit to the side, appearing to drive his shoulder into Cernak’s head. The Bolts blueliner was injured on the play and had to be helped off the ice. He did not return to the game.
Bunting was issued a match penalty for the hit by referees Wes McCauley and Frederick L’Ecuyer, who confirmed their call via video review.
“[Bunting] is trying to win the line to try and set himself up for a race to win the puck. It got away on him. [Cernak] wasn’t expecting it. I’m sure he was expecting a battle in that situation. He didn’t get one.”
Tampa head coach Jon Cooper was anticipating a suspension.
“For me, [the hit] seems to check a whole bunch of boxes,” Cooper said.
Tampa, leading 4-2 at the time of the penalty, scored twice on the ensuing power play to take a 6-2 lead. They went on to win the game 7-3.
Bunting led the Maple Leafs in penalty minutes during the regular season, with 103 — good enough for tenth overall in the league. That figure is a bit misleading, though, when you look at his penalty counts. He took 43 penalties during the season but drew 42, second-highest in the NHL behind only Connor McDavid.
No update on Cernak’s status, or if he’ll be available for Game 2. The Leafs will be without Bunting for the next two; he’ll be eligible to return for Game 5 in Toronto.
Bunting forfeits no salary as a result of the ban, as players are not paid a salary during the postseason.
Referees for the game were Wes McCauley (#4) and Frederick L’Ecuyer (#17); linesmen were Matt MacPherson (#83) and Jesse Marquis (#86).