GLENDALE, Ariz. — Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting have circled this date on their calendar and for very different reasons.
Matthews, who grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, will get to play in front of family and friends when the Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday night.
But for Bunting, this will mark the first time he’s played against the team that drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Draft.
“We’re expecting big things, he’s been talking about this game a long time,” Matthews said of Bunting. “Should be a pretty big tribute video for him and all that stuff.”
When Bunting was asked about Matthews’ comments, the Toronto-born and raised forward smiled at the suggestion.
“I don’t think there will be a video tribute,” said Bunting, who played in just 26 games with the Coyotes. “It’s pretty funny he said that.”
Matthews’ playful jab at Bunting speaks to the friendship both have developed since becoming teammates when the latter signed a two-year, $1.9 million contract to play for his hometown team last July. But it’s their chemistry on the ice that has been key to ensuring that the top line didn’t lose a step with a new winger in the fold.
When the Maple Leafs opened the season, they tasked Nick Ritchie to fill the void of the departed Zach Hyman on the left wing with Matthews and Mitch Marner. Bunting was the next man up but had his own struggles on the second line and was moved into a bottom-six position.
Like he’s had to do for most of his career, Bunting had to find his way back. He began winning more puck battles and as Nick Ritchie continued to struggle, Bunting’s stock rose.
On Tuesday night, Bunting was effective on both sides of the ice. He got his stick in the way of a chance created by the Vegas Golden Knights. That in turn set up a scoring chance and a subsequent drawn penalty. On the offensive side of things, Bunting’s setup to Matthews for Toronto’s second goal of the game had the star center smiling from ear-to-ear.
“I just try to get open and try to take pucks for him and make plays on them because he’s one of the best players in the world,” Bunting said of Matthews. “Every single night he’s bringing his game so I know I’ve got to bring mine.”
Matthews is the greatest hockey player to come out of the state Arizona and was selected first overall in the 2016 draft by arguably the largest hockey market in the world. Bunting is a Toronto-born hockey player who at 26-years-old, is still considered an NHL rookie by league standards. Their paths couldn’t be more different, yet they both know Arizona.
The Leafs can use some of that motivation to correct some things when they visit the Coyotes. They defeated the Golden Knights 4-3 in a shootout on Tuesday but squandered a third-period lead for the second consecutive game.
The games came against high-calibre opponents like the Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche on Saturday. At 7-23-3, Arizona has the worst record in the Western Conference and Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, who got his first NHL victory in Arizona in 2019, doesn’t want his club to look past them.
“We should be a little aggravated about how we’ve let these leads slip away here in these two games,” Keefe said. “Take that aggravation and turn it into motivation in terms of just playing a good sound team game.”
The Leafs’ first line was the exception to the rule on Tuesday. While every other line struggled against the Golden Knights, The Bunting-Matthews-Kase line had an expected-goals percentage of 89.76 percent according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Petr Mrazek will get the nod in goal on Wednesday. It’s his first start since Dec. 11. It’s unlikely Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall will be available to Toronto with Keefe saying that the forwards remain in COVID-19 protocol.