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Here’s How Bunting Got Penguins a Home Run

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Michael Bunting

The trade, when the Pittsburgh Penguins made it, was about as popular — inside and outside the organization — as foot fungus.

OK, perhaps a bit less.

Not because of what president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas got from Carolina in the deal — that full value of that package might not be known for several years — but because of what he gave up.

Jake Guentzel, after all, not only was productive, but was immensely popular with his teammates. Sure, they appreciated the skills that made him a reliable 30-plus goal-scorer, but also his fearlessness; although Guentzel is only 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, he routinely operated in often-violent areas of the ice, where some larger men are wary of venturing.

Dubas, whether to his credit or detriment, held off on moving Guentzel, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, until early March, after the Penguins had lost the final three games of a Western road trip and given no reason to believe that they’d be making a run at an Eastern Conference playoff berth.

Which, after emerging from the funk than enveloped the locker room following Guentzel’s departure, is precisely what they did.

There were plenty of reasons for that. The inspired play of Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust and Alex Nedeljkovic, among others. The return of a guy who looked a lot like Evgeni Malkin. A general urgency and commitment that had been missing for most of the season.

And the contributions of the headliner among the assets the Hurricanes surrendered to acquire Guentzel.

That would be winger Michael Bunting, who proved to be an ideal fit with Malkin and Rickard Rakell on the second line — and merits some credit for Malkin’s revival — and whose work in the “bumper” role on the power play made it actually look like a power play at times.

“We kind of just ran with it, once we started as a line,” Bunting said.

Losing Bunting didn’t seem to damage Carolina, which finished second in the Metropolitan Division and third in the overall standings, and the Hurricanes have had no reason to second-guess bringing in Guentzel, who had¬†eight goals and 17 assists in 17 games with them.

Regardless, as much as Guentzel is missed on the ice and in their locker room, the Pittsburgh Penguins have no misgivings about adding Bunting, who put up six goals and 13 assists in 21 games after joining them.

“I think it went well,” he said. “I think I came in and wanted to have an effect on the team right away, and show what I was made of. I just wanted to come in and (have) an impact, so I felt like I did that.”

Part of that stems from his knack for annoying opponents, as evidenced by the eight penalties he drew after joining the Penguins. That’s an element this team clearly needed.

And while leaving Carolina ultimately cost Bunting a chance to chase a Stanley Cup this spring, he remains adamant that even though he has no hard feelings toward the Hurricanes, he’s quite content in his current situation.

“I’m excited for a full year (with the Penguins, to) get more and more comfortable,” Bunting said. “But everyone here has been great to me since coming into this organization. I’ve felt like I’ve been here all year, just in this short period of time. It’s been fun.”

Although the Pittsburgh Penguins sputtered for a week or so after they acquired him, they eventually got their game in order and put together an 8-1-3 streak before being eliminated from playoff contention the night before their regular-season finale.

“We were playing great hockey,” Bunting said. “We were playing playoff hockey for the last little stint there. We were one of the hottest teams in the league. If we can just bring that momentum into next year and know that we’re good enough and keep competing for a playoff spot … I hope things are a lot different at this time next year.”

Having Bunting around for a full season should only enhance the chances of that.