Toronto Maple Leafs forward Michael Bunting has been suspended three playoff games for an illegal hit to the head of Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Eric Cernak in the second period of Game 1. The NHL Department of Player Safety announced its decision on Wednesday, and the Leafs will be without Bunting through Game 4.
Late in the second period, Bunting and Cernak were going for a loose puck when Bunting launched into Cernak’s head. The Tampa defenseman left the game with a head injury and did not return, and Bunting was assessed a five-minute major.
Michael Bunting has received a 5-minute match penalty for an illegal check to the head on Erik Cernak. pic.twitter.com/aY8TnNZgWl
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 19, 2023
In its video explaining decision, the NHL said that both criteria for an illegal hit to the head were met on the play.
“First, the head is clearly the main point of contact,” the NHL said in its explanation. “Bunting’s arm and elbow make direct and forceful contact with the head of Cernak, and it is the head that absorbs nearly all of the force of the check.
“Second, the head contact on this play is avoidable. Bunting unnecessarily extends his body upward into Cernak’s head to deliver this check, missing his core completely and picking his head.”
The league also noted that Cernak was “particularly vulnerable” because there was clear interference on Bunting’s part. The puck was still far away when Bunting initiated the contact.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has already ruled Cernak out for Game 2, and Toronto will be without Bunting while facing a 1-0 deficit in the series.
Bunting is coming off a 2022-23 season in which he tallied 23 goals and 26 assists in 82 games. His absence will make the Maple Leafs’ attempt to get out of the first round for the first time since 2004 an even more difficult task.