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Maple Leafs Notes: O’Reilly’s ‘tough’ injury, Bunting’s demotion

The runway for experimentation has been chopped short.

The moment the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired stud two-way centre Ryan O’Reilly from St. Louis, coach Sheldon Keefe began dreaming of all the line combinations he’d play with in the leadup to the playoffs.

Well, the priority has shifted from getting O’Reilly comfortable to getting him healthy.

A puck blasted by Auston Matthews broke O’Reilly’s pointer finger in Vancouver on Saturday, and the trade-deadline splash returned to Toronto early to see a specialist.

He has been placed on long-term injured reserve and will miss a minimum of 10 games. The earliest he is eligible to return is March 29.

“To lose him certainly is tough and disappointing, but we acquired him to be healthy and ready to go for the playoffs — and that will be the case. To that end, it’s not bad in terms of what the bigger picture is,” Keefe told reporters Tuesday in Newark. “We’ll see how it goes, but I expect he’ll get a good chunk of regular-season (action) too.

“We’ll get him back up and running as soon as we can.”

The 32-year-old O’Reilly has been ferocious in the faceoff circle, diligent on defence, and has scored three goals and two assists in his eight games with Toronto. Next to Matthews and Mitch Marner, O’Reilly has been Keefe’s most-used Leafs forward at even-strength since his arrival.

“No matter who we are playing against or what time it is, he is doing everything the exact way you have to play when you really want to win,” GM Kyle Dubas raved in Vancouver.

“He is above his man all the time when they are trying to leave the zone. It prevents the other team from breaking out clean a lot of the time. His stick details on the forecheck, how strong he is on the puck, these are things that for me, over time in this job, have stood out time and again in the playoffs as vitally important. He does them all to the ultimate degree every time he is on the ice.

“You can see that starting to impact some of the other players on the team. He has been everything that we thought when we acquired him.”

With the roster expanding and O’Reilly down, the Maple Leafs recalled Marlies forwards Pontus Holmberg and Alex Steeves to play Tuesday in New Jersey.

“We were an elite team without O’Reilly,” Keefe said. “We just press on.”

Tavares is hurting

Tavares surprised onlookers in Newark by practising in an “extra” grey sweater Monday.

The captain will not dress Tuesday due to an “abundance of caution,” Keefe said, as the Leafs aim to have their centre 100 per cent ready for Saturday, when they host the Oilers.

“John’s just not feeling himself today. Not feeling great. He wanted to skate to see exactly where he’s at and got through it,” Keefe said.

“You got to be smart about it.”

Keefe mentioned difficult travel and a flu bug for taking a toll on Tavares, but it’s impossible to imagine the hard body checks Tavares received Saturday in Vancouver not being a factor here.

Tavares got trucked clean by Tyler Myers early in the 4-1 loss, and defenceman Jake McCabe immediately dropped the gloves in response.

“I’m good,” Tavares said post-game. “I went and thanked (McCabe) after. Anytime someone comes in and steps up for you, obviously means a lot – especially a new guy that’s just getting acclimated. Not an easy thing to do. So, much appreciated.”

Utility forward Sam Lafferty jumps up to fill middle ice on the second line between William Nylander and Calle Järnkrok.

Lafferty has already played left and right wing for Toronto. He spent most of his shifts for Chicago this season at centre.

Bunting bumped back

Keefe demoted Michael Bunting from Matthews’ top line Saturday in Vancouver after the left wing failed to register a shot on goal in Alberta. Alexander Kerfoot benefited from a promotion.

“Kerf’s been playing better than Bunts. That’s really it,” Keefe explained. “Trying to change that group a little bit there and try to get a little bit more from them.”

Bunting is having a fine contract year (19 goals, 42 points in 63 games) but has hit a snag. He doesn’t have a point in three games or a goal in five games. He went minus-3 in Western Canada.

“It is what it is. I’m gonna hopefully get it back here, play my game, and get to the net,” Bunting told reporters after practising on an energy line with callups Holmberg and Steeves.

“Doesn’t matter what line I’m on, I’m gonna play my same game and bring the impact every game. Nothing changes.”

Keefe believes easier matchups will allow Bunting to find his speed and play-making as well as focus on his own competitiveness and finishing.

“I think he can be a driver on that line and be a leader on the line,” Keefe said.

“There’s a bit of a mental block for him right now, and we’re trying to help him through that. He’s an important guy. I have full confidence he’ll be back with Matthews before long.”

One-Timers: Luke Schenn’s wife, Jeska Peczek, is due to give birth in about nine days, so the newly acquired defenceman remained home with his family. He did not travel with the Leafs to Newark. “It’s not an easy journey to get from Toronto to Vancouver, if need be,” Keefe said. “So we’re just going to bide him some time.”… Following a pair of scratches, Timothy Liljegren returns to lineup, while newcomer Erik Gustafsson will be the odd man out. “No injury or anything, so all good,” Liljegren assured…. The red-hot Devils — now with 100 per cent more Timo Meier! — have points in seven of their past eight games.

Maple Leafs projected lines Tuesday in New Jersey

Kerfoot – Matthews – Marner
Järnkrok – Lafferty – Nylander
Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Acciari
Bunting – Holmberg – Steeves

Rielly ­– Liljegren
McCabe – Brodie
Giordano – Holl



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