But there’s no doubt in Mats Sundin’s mind what is more important. Captain Mats moved within one goal of equalling the all-time franchise record on Tuesday before setting up Nik Antropov for the winner as the Toronto Maple Leafs skated to a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Sundin has 388 goals in a Maple Leaf uniform, leaving him one shy of Darryl Sittler. More importantly to him, the Maple Leafs are now just one point back of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
“I stopped counting goals a little while ago,” said Sundin. “When you’re 36, you look at the wins.
“You want to be one of those top eight teams to get a chance to compete for the championship.”
A third straight win at Air Canada Centre helped keep Toronto right in the hunt. The Maple Leafs vaulted over the New York Rangers into ninth in the conference with the victory and improved to 15-15-5 at home.
Many, including the team’s fans, have pointed to the Leafs inconsistent play on home ice as the reason it is still fighting for a playoff spot. Sundin agrees.
“They’ve been frustrated with our play here the same way we have,” he said. “It’s totally understandable.”
It wasn’t a problem on this night.
The strong play of Lightning goalie Marc Denis was the only reason the game was so close. Toronto dominated play for most of the game and outshot Tampa 24-8 through two periods.
“It would’ve been nice to pull out the win for him,” lamented Lightning forward Martin St. Louis.
Instead it was the Leafs who pulled ahead in the third period. The score was tied 2-2 when Antropov took a pass from Sundin, skated in from the boards and slid the puck underneath Denis at 5:51. It was Antropov’s fourth goal in six games.
Chad Kilger also scored for the Maple Leafs (34-27-9), while Brad Richards and Dan Boyle replied for Tampa Bay (39-27-4).
It was the last of a six-game, 13-day road trip for the Lightning, but they won’t be feeling too good on the charter home.
“They certainly won more battles than we did . . . a hell of a lot more battles,” said Tampa coach John Tortorella. “Obviously, they spent too much time in our zone and we didn’t spend enough in theirs.”
There were signs early this might not be Toronto’s night.
Tampa took advantage of a strange bounce to grab an early lead. A low shot by Richards from the point deflected off Leafs defenceman Ian White’s stick and bounced by Andrew Raycroft at 2:24.
The Leafs goalie was worried Tampa would try and sit on that advantage.
“You know a team that’s been on the road that long, they’re going to get a lead and not take any shots the rest of the night,” said Raycroft. “We just fought back the rest of the night.”
Kilger tied it 1-1 at 11:34 after taking a nice pass from Kyle Wellwood. His shot off the rush squeezed by Denis to give Kilger his 11th goal of the year and a loud March Break crowd of 19,530 some life.
The Leafs continued to press the Lightning but it was Tampa that again grabbed the lead. Moments after appearing to catch Sundin with an undetected high-stick in his own zone, Boyle raced in on a short-handed rush and beat Raycroft at 4:36 of the second period.
Still, the Leafs stayed patient. They’ve been playing from behind a lot lately.
“Once you win a couple games when you’re down one or two goals, you don’t really panic,” said Sundin. “It felt like we were the better team, even when we were down a goal.”
The captain showed that less than 12 minutes later.
Sundin shook off Tampa players Cory Sarich and Vaclav Prospal in the corner before skating out and ripping a shot over the glove of Denis to make it 2-2 at 16:06 of the second period.
“The Sundin goal, he comes out of the corner against two of our guys . . . we can’t let that happen,” said Boyle.
In describing the Leafs situation afterwards, Sundin left the impression that he’s determined not to be stopped.
His focus is solely on the playoffs and doing whatever it takes to get his team there.
“We’re in a position right now where we have no choice (but to win each night),” said Sundin. “This is going to be a race for us right down to the last game.”
Notes: The Maple Leafs took all four games from the Lightning this year . . . Tampa Bay has just two wins in its past 16 visits to Toronto . . . The Lightning lead the league with 45 road points on the road season . . . Tampa defenceman Luke Richardson was again a healthy scrath. The former Maple Leaf last dressed for the Lightning on Jan. 9.