TORONTO – With each passing loss, Toronto Maple Leafs interim GM Cliff Fletcher brings himself closer to a conversation he knows he’ll need to have.
Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the visiting St. Louis Blues is just another step closer to when Fletcher will finally have the “sit-down” with captain Mats Sundin and his agent J.P. Barry before the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline.
“Of course we’ll sit down with Mats eventually,” Fletcher said Tuesday night. “But it’s not even Feb. 1 yet, it’s very premature. There’s nothing going on in the league yet. …
“I just want him to lead the way and see if we can win some hockey games.”
Sundin, an unrestricted free agent July 1 who controls his fate with a no-movement clause in his contract, continues to maintain he has no interest in moving. If he changes his mind, Blues head coach Andy Murray kidded after Tuesday’s win that there’s a place for him in St. Louis.
“Mats Sundin is a tremendous player,” Murray said with a smile. “If they want to send him our way, we’ll take him.”
St. Louis didn’t need Sundin on Tuesday. Keith Tkachuk scored on his team’s first two shots of the game and the Blues ended a seven-game winless streak (0-5-2). David Backes also had a goal and an assist for the Blues (23-19-7), who improved to 5-1-1 against Eastern Conference teams this season.
“Before the game, I talked about getting off to a better start, and we were able to establish our forecheck early and make it tough on (Toronto),” said Murray.
Toronto native Manny Legace, with family and friends in the crowd, stood tall in net for St. Louis despite spending 11 hours in the Atlanta airport Monday trying to leave the all-star festivities. He also didn’t take part in Tuesday morning’s pre-game skate because his equipment had not yet showed up. But he started anyway Tuesday and was solid, stopping 23 shots.
“I was still doubting myself when I came to the rink tonight, I wasn’t sure how I would react to all that,” said Legace. “But we got lucky tonight.”
Matt Stajan and Jason Blake had the goals for the Maple Leafs (20-24-8), their line with Darcy Tucker – who had two assists – clearly the best for Toronto on the night.
Rookie Jiri Tlusty’s promotion to the top line with captain Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov didn’t generate into much. But he’s only 19.
Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala faced only 19 shots in the loss – the fewest shots against allowed by Toronto this season.
With 17 scouts from 15 different NHL teams in the press box looking on, the Leafs gave up the opening goal after a video review allowed Tkachuk’s deflection to stand just 1:18 into the game.
It was 2-0 just 4:23 later when Jay Mckee set up Tkachuk in front for a re-direct that beat Toskala through the legs, making it two goals on two shots for the Blues.
“When you put yourself behind the 8-ball like we did early in the first period, you’re asking for trouble,” said Tucker. “We did a good job battling back but it’s a tough position to put yourself in.”
Toskala rebounded from the shaky start with a huge pad save on what looked like a sure goal by Backes during a Blues power play and then a nifty glove save on Lee Stempniak a few shifts later.
That seemed to spark the Leafs, who had more jump in their game. Blake cut the Blues’ lead to 2-1 when he patiently outwaited Legace and rifled a shot top corner over the sprawled goalie at 12:17, waking up a dormant Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,323.
Legace then made a series of big saves on a Leafs power play that had several chances.
The Leafs carried the play early in the second period, enough to make Murray take a rare timeout to wake up his skaters.
It worked. The Blues now were charging and had the Leafs on their heels.
Backes finally made the momentum shift count when he banged home a loose puck in the slot at 10:55 to make it 3-1. Paul Kariya made the play happen with a superb cross-ice pass just inside the Toronto blue-line to Erik Johnson, whose blast left a rebound for Backes to pounce on.
The Leafs got back into it out of a broken play. Tucker’s wide slap shot bounced behind the net to Blake, who then passed it between his legs out to Stajan, who one-timed it over Legace at 15:11.
St. Louis went 0-for-3 on the power play while Toronto was 0-for-4.
Notes – Toronto defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo (knee) returned after missing nine games. He missed the first 37 games of the season with another knee injury before returning Dec. 27 and playing five games before getting hurt again Jan. 5. Winger Kris Newbury was also in the lineup after being called up from the AHL Marlies … The Leafs were without forwards Alexei Ponikarovsky (shoulder), Alex Steen (shoulder) and Boyd Devereaux (wrist) and defenceman Bryan McCabe (hand) …The Blues were without forwards Martin Rucinsky (shoulder) and Mike Johnson (shoulder). Johnson, a former Leaf, had surgery Jan. 16 and probably won’t play again this season. … The Blues last played in Toronto in December 2003 … The Blues next host Anaheim on Friday while the Leafs are at Carolina on Thursday night.