TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs have turned to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares for much of their offence in recent years.
With the former still working back from wrist surgery, and the other two stars still looking to find the back of the net, Toronto's depth has been forced to carry much of the load early in the schedule.
A couple local products led that charge Saturday.
Wayne Simmonds scored early before Michael Bunting buried his first in blue and white in the third period as the Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-1.
"It's extremely important," Simmonds said of getting production up and down the lineup. "That's gonna pay dividends going down the rest of the year.
"We've got a lot of high-octane offensive guys, but on a nightly basis sometimes guys aren't clicking and it's up to everyone else."
Alexander Kerfoot added a goal and an assist for Toronto (2-1-0), while Jack Campbell made 20 saves.
Simmonds and Bunting, who both grew up in the city's east end suburb of Scarborough, are skating on the same ice as their childhood heroes — in front of fans with COVID-19 restrictions loosened — and soaking up every minute.
"To be able to play in my hometown and have my wife and daughter at the game ... it's been really nice," said Simmonds, who waited nine games last season for his first goal as a Leaf with the team playing in empty buildings. "All the fans in general, it's been unbelievable."
The pesky Bunting, who's making a nightly habit of getting under opponents' skin, signed with Toronto in the off-season.
"A moment I'll remember for the rest of my life," he said of his goal. "It was a cool experience to be able to get one at home for my first time and celebrate in front of that crowd."
Josh Norris replied for Ottawa (1-1-0). Anton Forsberg, who made 46 stops in Thursday's 3-2 victory over the Leafs in the nation's capital, finished with 26 saves.
"Second and third period, we played as hard as you have to play to win a game in the National Hockey League," Senators head coach D.J. Smith said. "But you can't feel your way into a game on the road."
Attendance at Scotiabank Arena was announced at 18,211 — the second straight home date that fell short of a sellout.
Toronto was forced into an uncomfortable situation behind Campbell with fellow netminder Petr Mrazek (groin) and defenceman Justin Holl (illness) both sidelined Saturday.
Pressed tight to the NHL's salary cap — which remains stagnant at US$81.5-million because of the COVID-19 pandemic's economic fallout — the Leafs didn't have enough room on their books to recall No. 3 option Michael Hutchinson from the minors without sending someone down and playing with 17 skaters.
Faced with that option, the club instead signed University of Toronto goalie Alex Bishop, who played three seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, to a one-day amateur tryout to serve as Campbell's backup.
"Jack got through the game and was good, comfortable," said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, who added Mrazek is expected to be out two weeks. "It's an unfortunate situation that's a reality of the flat cap system, and the fact that for the first time in the flat cap, you don't have the exemptions and things that were in place for COVID last year.
"You're gonna see a lot of this throughout the league."
The Leafs got off to sluggish starts in both of their previous games, including a 3-2 home victory over the Montreal Canadiens on opening night, but were on the front foot early against Ottawa.
Simmonds opened the scoring just 2:12 into the first period after Toronto won an offensive zone faceoff. Rasmus Sandin took a pass from defence partner Travis Dermott and rotated down low before feeding the bruising winger at the top of the crease.
The home side doubled its lead at 8:06 when William Nylander, who has points in all three of the Leafs' games, stole the puck from Ottawa rookie Shane Pinto down low and fed it in front to Kerfoot, who made no mistake on Forsberg.
"It was huge," Simmonds said of his team's quick opening. "Especially after the last two games we came up pretty lame in the first 10 minutes.
"There was a huge emphasis on starting fast and continuing that throughout the full 60 minutes."
Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly hit the post early in the second before Forsberg robbed Tavares with a terrific glove save later in the period.
The Leafs then got a 5-on-3 power play for 66 seconds, but the Senators netminder denied Tavares on a one-time effort.
Chances were few and far between for Ottawa, which trailed 53-30 in shot attempts through two periods. But Tim Stutzle nearly made 2-1 on a terrific individual effort only to be thwarted Campbell.
The Senators finally broke through on a late power play when Tyler Ennis won a battle and Drake Batherson found Norris in front with 2:18 left in the period.
Batherson appeared to even things up with five seconds left in period on a breakaway that saw his initial shot rebound off Campbell, off the Ottawa forward's leg and in. But Toronto correctly challenged for offside.
Marner hit one of Forsberg's posts on a break of his own five minutes into the third before Chris Tierney found iron at the other end moments later on a deflected shot.
Bunting finally gave the Leafs some breathing room at 7:57 after taking a pass from Kerfoot on a 2-on-1. The opportunity looked to have evaporated with Ottawa getting numbers back, but he stayed with the play and fired home his first with Toronto.
"I'm pretty much speechless," Bunting said. "It was a pretty cool experience to look up and see all those Maple Leaf jerseys in the crowd cheering.
"And they were cheering for me."
Notes: Leafs defenceman Timothy Liljegren made his season debut with Holl out sick. ... Ottawa hosts the Dallas Stars on Sunday afternoon. ... Toronto welcomes the New York Rangers on Monday. ... Keefe said Matthews continues to progress, but there's no set date for the return of last season's NHL goal leader to the lineup.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press