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Leafs winger Michael Bunting suspended three games for illegal check to the head

NEW YORK — Michael Bunting pleaded his case. 

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety then handed down its verdict.

The Toronto Maple Leafs winger has been suspended for the next three games of his team’s first-round playoff matchup with Tampa Bay after delivering an illegal check to the head on Lightning defenceman Erik Cernak in the series opener.

The incident occurred with 4:20 remaining in Tuesday’s second period when Bunting clipped his unsuspecting opponent up high as he went to battle for the puck. 

Cernak fell backwards to the ice and needed help getting to the locker room. He did not return to the bench in Tampa’s resounding 7-3 victory.

Bunting, who plays on the Leafs’ top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, received a match penalty and a game misconduct.

The Toronto native had 23 goals and 49 points in 82 regular-season games in 2022-23.

Cernak, meanwhile, was fourth in ice time among Lightning defencemen, averaging 19 minutes 14 seconds. 

Leafs blue-liner Mark Giordano said before the suspension was announced that Bunting didn’t intend to injure Cernak. 

“Those two guys have played each other a long time, and they play each other hard,” the veteran defender said following Wednesday’s practice. “(Bunting’s) thinking both guys are going to sort of engage shoulder-to-shoulder, but unfortunately their guy wasn’t really in that mode of engaging, and he got hit. 

“I don’t think Bunts really even looked at him. It was just one of those plays where you know who you’re playing against, and the guy knows he’s going to come at you hard. He was trying to just go shoulder-to-shoulder, get some separation, and it ended up in that.” 

Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe spoke earlier Wednesday about Bunting’s value to his roster. 

“A guy that plays with our top players and has ability to score goals for us, plays with lots of energy,” Keefe said. “He’s come to be an important part of our team.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2023.

The Canadian Press