TORONTO – “You’re a greasy rat, kid.”
Michael Bunting — the Toronto Maple Leafs’ overnight pre-season phenom — had his rinkside interview interrupted Wednesday when teammate Kurtis Gabriel walked into the frame and barked that compliment in his ear.
Bunting later admitted the KG camera bomb startled him:
Bunting’s projected opening night centreman, John Tavares, chuckled at the scene.
“I like to dress it up a little more,” Tavares smiled.
Then the captain broke down the hockey benefits of employing a “greasy rat” like Scarborough’s finest.
Extremely determined. Great awareness on the ice. Knows how to complement elite players. Finds a way to make an impact on the game. Good hands and perfect timing.
“He’s been kind of a late bloomer,” Tavares went on. “Someone who’s had to prove a lot of people wrong and just always had that attitude of finding a way.”
The Bunting Way is to impress enough in his minutes during exhibition that he’s snatched up a top-six role like a rat does cheese.
The Calder-eligible 26-year-old (wink) scored last Saturday in his first dress rehearsal as a Leaf, erupted for a hat trick in Ottawa Wednesday, then deflected the game-winner off a David Kämpf pass in Friday’s Blue vs. White exhibition at Scotiabank Arena.
All Bunting does is score, apparently. And crawl under his opponents’ skin.
“He certainly is a guy that makes no friends on the ice,” says coach Sheldon Keefe, a fan of Bunting’s since he had him in the Soo.
“Just in terms of the hunger and the competitiveness he has around the net, because he’s always looking to get an edge on you. I’m really happy that he’s gotten the results that he’s gotten here in the first two games. It allows his confidence to grow, allows him to settle in here with us.”
The edge that the left winger has carried from AA minor hockey in the Greater Toronto Hockey League to a stint in the ECHL to a little UFA bidding war in his mid-20s, Bunting says it’s how he forces himself into the game.
“Getting the other team after me or to get in their head, I feel like that’s when I’m playing my best. When they’re chasing after me and not worried about the game, that helps us out. So, I don’t mind playing that role,” Bunting said.
“The road I took to get here isn’t the normal one everybody takes, so I take pride in that and I (embrace) it every day. You can’t take this thing for granted; it can go just as fast as it can come. You appreciate it a little bit more (because) it did take a little bit for me to get here. It has been a grind.”
The new grinder has bonded with veteran Wayne Simmonds over their similar paths to the show — “Scarborough sticks together,” Simmonds asserts of the mindset in the eastern part of Toronto — and he rhymes off Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi and Wendel Clark as boyhood role models.
“He’s just got a chip on his shoulder, in terms of how he’s how he’s come up through the hockey ranks,” Keefe said. “He plays with a lot to prove every night and he’s out there to try to make the best of every opportunity he can. And I like those qualities about him. That’s what I think makes you believe a player like him always has a chance, and here he is in the NHL.
“Those are the kind of guys you don’t want to bet against.”
My best guess at Toronto’s Opening Night lineup
Health willing, of course…
Keefe extension kept hush-hush
Curious that the Maple Leafs did not announce head coach Sheldon Keefe’s two-year contract extension when it was signed.
Appearing on Tim & Friends Friday, GM Kyle Dubas confirmed that the deal was signed off on early in the summer, yet news didn’t make the rounds until Thursday night — hours before Keefe’s starring turn in Amazon’s All or Nothing series.
“Whenever there’s a big disappointment we encounter, that always brings out the best in him as a coach,” Dubas said of Keefe. “He’s a person that thrives in situations like this.
“It’s a great thing for our organization.”
So why no official announcement?
“That’s not my department,” Keefe replied Friday night.
“It’s great for my family, of course. But it hasn’t changed anything in terms of my approach or anything like that. If anything, it just allows me to do my job as best I can without any other distractions.”
Matthews progressing just fine
Matthews’ recovering wrist is progressing well, and the star centre participated in three half-practices with linemates this week.
That said, he’s not yet ready for contact. If he squeezes into an exhibition game, it’ll be Toronto’s final one, Oct. 9 at home to Ottawa. That’s intended to be the dress rehearsal for the real NHL group.
“It’s about building up the strength in the wrist to the point that he’s confident in receiving passes, leaning into shots, and of course (taking) faceoffs and contact. The fact we’ve seen him out every single day with no setbacks is a good thing,” Keefe said.
New guy Nick Ritchie appears to have drawn the long straw in camp. The bruising left winger says he’s never skated with a duo as dynamic as Marner and Matthews.
“These are some of the most skilled guys in the league, and it’s cool to get to be on the same ice as them and learn things from them,” Ritchie said.
While the first talking point with Ritchie is his sturdy frame (six-foot-three, 236 pounds) and bruising style of play, his coach sees another reason for inserting him alongside his most productive forwards.
“You’re going to be surprised with how good his hands are, how good his shot is, how good he is at making plays in tight spaces,” Keefe said.
Marner approves crackdown on cross-checking
For years, the Maple Leafs have had a difficult time drawing penalties. Last season, the club ranked just 26th overall in the category, drawing 3.08 penalties per 60 minutes.
Not good enough for a group that is supposed to put away opponents on the power play.
It will be interesting to see if the NHL’s stricter enforcement of cross-checking either (a) gives the Leafs more confidence driving to the net or (b) results in a few more power plays.
Mitch Marner is a fan.
“Yeah, I think it’s good. It should be fair. You go into a corner, you don’t need to have a guy just abusing your back with crosschecks, so I think it should be a penalty,” Marner said.
“Also, net-front-wise, I think it’s dangerous. Guys are strong and can stand on their skates, but if a guy crosschecks you while you’re leaning over trying to tip a puck, you’re not going to stay up on your feet every single time that happens. So you’ve seen people eating pucks in the back of the neck, heads and stuff like that. The league thought it was a thing they needed to change, so we’ll see how it goes.”
A pretty pass from Nick Ritchie and an even prettier finish by Mitch Marner. pic.twitter.com/phLU9wtrBc
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 1, 2021
One-Timers: Expect significant cuts to Toronto’s bloated camp roster after its preseason back-to-back Monday and Tuesday . If you noticed white Band-Aids pasted to Leafs’ foreheads during Friday’s Blue vs. White game, there’s a reason. Those absorbant patches are being used by the Leafs for sweat and hydration analysis during camp. Sports science! … Toronto signed undrafted free-agent forward Braeden Kressler to a three-year entry level contract Friday evening. Kressler put up nine goals and 18 points in 46 games for the OHL’s Flint Firebirds in 2019-20 but did not play in 2020-21 due to the pandemic . Defence prospect Teemu Kivihalme, 26, was placed on waivers Friday; he’s eligible to be claimed before 2 p.m. ET Saturday…. Do the Maple Leafs offer Josh Ho-Sang (PTO) an AHL contract in order to avoid the waiver wire with a talent who has impressed at camp?
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NHL suspends Sharks’ Evander Kane 21 games for COVID-19 protocol violations – Sportsnet.ca
The NHL also announced Monday that its concurrent investigation into allegations of domestic abuse made against Kane by his estranged wife, Deanna, could not be substantiated.
Kane said he is in counselling in a statement released by the NHLPA.
— NHLPA (@NHLPA) October 18, 2021
“I would like to apologize to my teammates, the San Jose Sharks organization, and all Sharks fans for violating the NHL COVID protocols,” Kane said in a statement released by the NHLPA. “I made a mistake, one I sincerely regret and take responsibility for. During my suspension, I will continue to participate in counseling to help me make better decisions in the future. When my suspension is over, I plan to return to the ice with great effort, determination, and love for the game of hockey.”
The Sharks also released a statement.
Statement from the San Jose Sharks. pic.twitter.com/P25XxpiJgH
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) October 18, 2021
Kane will forfeit about $1.68 million of his $7 million salary for this season with the money going to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
Kane had previously been cleared by the NHL in an investigation into allegations made by Deanna Kane that he bet on hockey games, including some against the Sharks.
But the league did determine that Kane violated the COVID-19 protocols. A person familiar with the investigation said earlier this month that the league was looking into allegations that Kane submitted a fake vaccination card. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because details weren’t made public.
Using a fake vaccination card is illegal in both the United States and Canada, as well as against NHL rules.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week that only four players on active rosters hadn’t been vaccinated.
Kane had not been around the team since the start of training camp while these investigations were ongoing in an agreement between him and the team.
Kane, 30, is three seasons into a $49 million, seven-year contract. He’s with his third organization after being drafted by and debuting with Atlanta/Winnipeg and a stint in Buffalo.
The 30-year-old led the Sharks in scoring last season with 22 goals and 49 points in 56 games.
The Vancouver native has 506 career points (262 goals, 242 assists) in 769 NHL games with the Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres and Sharks.
Red Sox’s two grand slams lead ALCS rout of Astros – Sportsnet.ca
HOUSTON — J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers helped the Red Sox have a grand old time in Houston.
Boston became the first team to slug two grand slams in a postseason game, with Martinez and Devers connecting in the first two innings of a 9-5 win over the Astros on Saturday that tied their AL Championship Series at one game apiece.
Martinez made it 4-0 with his opposite-field shot off rookie Luis Garcia with two outs in the first. It was the first career playoff slam for the four-time All-Star, who began his career with the Astros.
Garcia exited with right knee discomfort after walking the first batter of the second inning. Jake Odorizzi took over, and shortly after a 13-minute delay while the right-hander warmed up on the field, Devers connected with one out for slam No. 2.
“J.D.’s swing was huge to get us on the board early, and then Raffy, same thing, another granny,” red-hot teammate Kike Hernandez said. “Has that ever happened before?”
It has now.
Game 3 is Monday night in Boston. It’s the first of three consecutive home games for the Red Sox, back in the playoffs for the first time since winning the 2018 World Series after downing Houston in the ALCS.
Hernandez, who Boston manager Alex Cora referred to Friday night as “en fuego” after a two-homer performance in Game 1, remained on fire Saturday. He had two hits, highlighted by a solo homer in the fourth inning.
Hernandez has been this postseason’s hottest hitter, leading all players with 16 hits, five homers and four doubles. His nine extra-base hits are also the most in these playoffs and tied a Red Sox postseason record with Mike Lowell (2007), Kevin Youkilis (2007) and David Ortiz (2004 & 2007).
“The importance of the game is allowing me to stay focused and stay locked in,” Hernandez said.
Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi permitted five hits and three runs in 5 1/3 innings.
The Astros captured a 5-4 win in the series opener as they rallied behind homers from Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa before falling into the huge hole early in this one.
“That’s a tough team,” Cora said. “It’s never comfortable with them because they’re a swing away from getting back in the game.”
The Red Sox were up 9-0 when Houston got on the board with an RBI double by Kyle Tucker with two outs in the fourth. The Astros cut the lead to 9-3 when Yuli Gurriel followed with single to right field that scored two more.
Gurriel and Jason Castro added solo homers in the ninth off Darwinzon Hernandez before Ryan Brasier got the final out.
“At the end, it was a little too close for comfort, but we got it done,” Hernandez said.
The injury to Garcia is another blow to a Houston team trying to reach the World Series for the second time in three years. The Astros are already reeling after an injury to staff ace Lance McCullers Jr. that kept him off the roster for this series.
They won the championship in 2017, a crown tainted by the team’s sign-stealing scandal.
When McCullers went out, manager Dusty Baker said the team would just have to “hit more” to absorb the loss. But now that the rotation is further depleted, it’ll be an even taller task for this powerful lineup outgunning a Boston team whose offense has outpaced everyone this postseason.
Odorizzi was left off the Division Series roster after a disappointing first season in Houston before getting a spot in this round after the injury to McCullers. He allowed seven hits and four runs in four innings Saturday in a performance that certainly isn’t good news for a team that is running short on starters.
TOUGH UP TOP
Altuve and Michael Brantley, the top two hitters in Houston’s lineup, are a combined 2 for 17 in the series with a hit each, including Altuve’s homer in Game 1.
There’s a day off Sunday before Houston’s Jose Urquidy makes his first start this postseason in Game 3 Monday. The Red Sox have yet to name their starter.
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