TAMPA – If Sheldon Keefe keeps pressing the right buttons, the Maple Leafs can launch themselves into a big series lead Sunday night.
While the two-time Stanley Cup champion Lightning remain confident their playoff prowess will eventually be the difference in this series and don’t appear to be changing the makeup of their starting lineup, Keefe is going to begin Game 4 with Alex Kerfoot on first-line left wing with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and try Michael Bunting on the fourth unit with Jason Spezza and Colin Blackwell.
It highlights Kerfoot’s much discussed versatility and gives Bunting a different role that utilizes his pestilence. As a 5-2 win in Game 3 unfolded, Keefe thought Bunting was not complementing Matthews and Marner as he had in regular season.
“Bunts will move around a bit, play different spots,” Keefe predicted Sunday morning at Amelie Arena. “We had Pierre Engvall in that spot to start (Game 3) and he brought a lot to it. Bunts in his own way will help that line, too.
“Spez had a good game the other night and between the three of them with Bunting and Blackwell, whether 5-on-5 or special teams, they can all make an impact for us.”
Keefe will make no swaps for his 12 forwards from Game 3, thanks in part to Kerfoot’s ability to fit in anywhere.
“Footy has been the Swiss Army knife all year for us,” Bunting said. “We were talking and I think he’s only not played one position for us, fourth line right wing or something like that. He’s reliable.”
Bunting came off a leg injury, right into the fire of his first NHL playoff action in Game 2 when Tampa came out gnarly, beat the Leafs to even the series. In Game 3, Toronto responded, with no Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford providing heavyweight bodyguards, meaning the smaller Bunting had to be at his agitating best.
“It’s fast hockey, it’s rough, it’s right up my alley so I’ve been enjoying it. It’s fun to play at home and fun on the road, to be the bad guy in the rink. You have to find energy in playoffs any way you can,” Bunting said.
It still sounds too good to be true to the Leafs and their legions of fans, but they’re in position to perhaps put the reigning Cup champs in a 3-1 hole for just the sixth time in league history since 1993. Then again, on three occasions since 2017 Toronto couldn’t even hold a 2-1 lead, part of their five failed first-round trips.
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“We’d love an opportunity to go home 3-1,” Keefe said of Game 5 at Scotiabank on Tuesday. “You’d like to get a split, but after the first game it’s ‘let’s get greedy here.’ That’s our mindset today.
“But they respond very well after a loss (the Bolts are 15-0 since the start of the 2020 playoffs) so we’re expecting their absolute best game of the series tonight. And I’m expecting our best game. I look back at the three so far and we’ve done a lot of good things as a team, but I don’t think we’ve played our best. And that’s exciting because we’re up in the series and we have another level to get to.”
Keefe is also keeping his defence together for Game 4, Justin Holl staying in for Timothy Liljegren.
Tampa coach Jon Cooper urged his players to stay home Sunday morning, especially those with Mother’s Day duties, though a few came for a morning workout.
“We know what we have to do tonight,” he said.
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