Bunting, Maple Leafs snap Lightning’s five-game win streak with 4-1 victory
TORONTO — Michael Bunting scrapped and scraped to make the NHL full-time after working portions of six seasons in the minors.
It was fitting that the 100th point of his career came in the context of a performance that showcased his badass exploits to the full.
The plucky winger scored Toronto’s first goal and appeared to be in the middle of the action in Tuesday’s Maple Leafs 4-1 win over Tampa Bay.
Bunting was involved in plenty of action between the whistles — and occasionally after — as the home side ended Lightning’s five-game winning streak.
“I took a slightly different path to get into the NHL,” said Bunting, a fourth-round pick by Arizona in 2014. “I’m proud of my path and how I got here.
“I had to keep crunching and believing in myself and it got me here. It was a great run and I want to continue that.”
Auston Matthews had the other goal against Andrei Vasilevskiy for Toronto (20-7-6) before Pierre Engvall and William Nylander found the net. Matt Murray made 18 saves and Nylander added an assist.
“Important game,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. “We were a bit hesitant at the start of this third but then we found our legs.”
Vladislav Namestnikov answered for Tampa (20-10-1) while Vasilevskiy stopped 36 shots as the Lightning lost for the fourth time in their last 17 contests (13-4-0).
“I don’t know what part of the game they reinvented that made us play like this,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “But make a note, don’t come to Toronto three days before the game.
“That was painfully obvious because we didn’t show up tonight.”
The Leafs came from regular road losses to the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals after accumulating at least a point in 15 straight games (12-0-3) — one below the franchise’s all-time mark.
Toronto led the Lightning 3-2 in the teams’ first round playoff series last spring, but Tampa stayed alive in Game 6 at home in double overtime before also taking the clincher at Scotiabank Arena.
Two-time defending champion Lightning made it to a third consecutive Stanley Cup final before being eliminated by Colorado.
Toronto, who lost 4-3 in Tampa on Dec. 3, opened the scoring at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday when Bunting shot past Vasilevskiy’s blocker to score his eighth goal of the season.
“The journey isn’t the same for everyone,” said Matthews, the 2016 draft pick. “[Bunting]had to work his way up the ladder. I can’t say I walked in his shoes. He has his own story.
“I’m happy for him. Hopefully he keeps his foot on the pedal.”
Vasilevskiy had been sharp on a break from Matthews just before and made a couple of saves on a late penalty before Bunting was involved in a scrum at the end of the period where he was forcibly removed off the ice by linesman Dan Kelly.
Bunting played against Kelly when both were in the American Hockey League, but the former said there was no history between the two.
“Emotions were just running high,” Bunting said. “It’s hockey and go ahead.”
Matthews finally got the better of a shielded Vasilevskiy at 61 seconds into the middle when he fired up on a power play.
Murray, meanwhile, had almost nothing to do as the Leafs overtook Tampa 29-8 in 40 minutes.
Namestnikov buried his own rebound after a pass in the offensive zone for his second at 4:09 in the third to make it 2-1.
But Murray and the Leafs held on late into the night as the Lightning pushed before Engvall fired his sixth goal into the empty goal and Nylander added his 19th to make it 4-1 in a night where Bunting proved his worth asked.
“Without a doubt, a significant milestone,” Keefe said of the 27-year-old’s 100th NHL point. “It’s all part of his history, but he’s an NHL player. He has solidified. He is a very important player for our team.
“He has bigger plans.”
MOMENT OF SILENCE
The Leafs announced before the puck drop that Vittorio Panza, the grandfather of defenseman Victor Mete, was one of five people killed in a weekend shooting in Vaughan, Ontario.
Toronto and Tampa Bay held a minute’s silence for the victims.
Leafs defender Rasmus Sandin (neck) retired in the second half and did not return.
“Precautionary more than anything,” Keefe said. “I need some time for things to settle down to know exactly what’s happening and what his status might be.”
Lightning: Visit the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday.
Leafs: Hosts the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on December 20, 2022.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press