TORONTO – No matter how Mats Sundin looks at it, he can’t win.
It’s no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs are ready to part ways with their long-time captain and it’s no secret that Sundin would prefer to stay. He’s now got to decide whether he’ll waive his no-movement clause ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline.
The looming choice had Sundin in a reflective mood after a 3-1 win over Atlanta on Saturday in what might have been his final game at Air Canada Centre in a Maple Leafs jersey.
“No matter what happens I’ll always love Toronto and I’m going to love the Toronto Maple Leafs,” he said. “It’s been my home for the last 13 years and that’s never going to change.
“I hope people respect whatever decision’s going to come out of this.”
It didn’t feel like the end of an era on Saturday.
There were no video tributes or emotional ovations from the crowd, even after Sundin scored in the second period. Perhaps the lack of energy and emotion can be blamed on what appears to be a third straight spring without playoff hockey – the very reason why interim GM Cliff Fletcher is looking at dealing Sundin.
It’s been a tough few days for the big Swede, who lost almost 10 pounds while suffering from strep throat and has been bombarded with questions about a potential trade. Still, the constant attention is something he’s learned to appreciate while playing in one of hockey’s most intense markets.
“We do have the greatest fanbase and the best support as a hockey team in the world – there’s no doubt about that,” said Sundin. “At the same time, I think it’s a challenge for guys to come here (and) play under the scrutiny and loop that it is. You have to get used to it.
“As you play longer here I think you come to cherish it.”
Sundin is expected to meet with agent J.P. Barry in Ottawa on Sunday. The Leafs start a four-game road trip with a game against the Senators on Monday and don’t play at home again until March 4.
Sundin has been in Toronto since being acquired in a June 1994 trade. He’s had more years of service in the city than the six Toronto players who started Saturday’s game combined.
But the team is going nowhere fast, as evidenced by another dull home game. The Air Canada Centre has been turned into the building that fun forgot during a season-high five-game homestand even though the Leafs managed three wins over that stretch.
Alex Steen and Nik Antropov scored third-period goals for the Maple Leafs (26-28-9) on Saturday while Mark Recchi replied for the Thrashers (29-30-4).
Atlanta’s playoff hopes seem just as dim as Toronto’s at this point and many expect the Thrashers to part ways with star winger Marian Hossa before the deadline. They certainly didn’t have the look of a team in a battle for a playoff spot while playing the Maple Leafs.
“If you can’t beat one of the worst teams in the conference, we don’t deserve it,” said centre Bobby Holik. “There’s no room for excuses. Those are facts. We all know that we lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight, and what else is there to say? We weren’t good enough to win. We weren’t good enough in any aspect of the game.”
Steen’s goal at 2:53 of the third period stood up as the winner for the Maple Leafs. One day after signing a two-year contract extension, he raced in on the wing and backhanded a shot over Kari Lehtonen’s left shoulder to make it 2-1.
He’s had the locker-room stall beside Sundin since entering the NHL three years ago and is waiting to see what will happen in the coming days.
“Whatever he does he’s well-supported by the guys in here,” said Steen. “We want him to stay.
“But he has done so much for this organization and this city for so long. It’s a choice that he has to make.”
Recchi opened the scoring for Atlanta at 11:54 of the first period during a power play. He was standing alone at the side of the goal and banged in a rebound off a Hossa shot for his 12th goal of the season.
Sundin tied it 1-1 at 3:53 of the second period after a nifty play by Kyle Wellwood. The Leafs winger passed the puck from the high slot and Sundin one-timed it by Lehtonen.
It was the captain’s 25th of the season – and perhaps the final of his career in blue and white.
Notes: In 970 career games with the Maple Leafs, Sundin has 413 goals, 558 assists and 971 points … Toronto finished the season series with a record of 3-0-1 against the Thrashers … Recchi has 28 points (10-18) in 34 games since being picked up on waivers by Atlanta earlier this season … Antropov’s goal was the 100th of his NHL career … Toskala started for the 19th time in the past 20 games.