TORONTO – Mats Sundin really couldn’t have picked a better way to say goodbye.
Scoring the shootout winner with the entire Air Canada Centre crowd on its feet was one thing. But the most special moment of an entertaining evening came when Sundin was named first star and returned to the ice by himself.
He took a bow, blew kisses in the air and waved to the people who came to adore him over 13 memorable seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. There were even a few tears in his eyes as he skated off the ice in Toronto for what could be the final time as an NHL player.
“There’s been a buildup for this game,” Sundin said moments after giving the Vancouver Canucks a 3-2 win. “All the battles and everything we’ve gone through over the last 13 years with the Leafs, so many ups and downs and disappointments and happiness. A lot of feelings came to mind on the ice.
“The ovation from the fans was very special. I’ll remember that the rest of my life.”
This was one of the rare cases where the quality of the game managed to match its considerable hype.
The five-minute overtime period saw the teams trade chances and both goalies make great saves. Then, of course, there was Sundin ending the shootout by beating Vesa Toskala with his patented backhand move.
It made for great theatre.
“It was a perfect ending,” said Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo.
Added teammate Kyle Wellwood: “It’s just one of those nights where you give (Sundin) a chance like that, you know he’s going to be able to score.”
The Canucks players couldn’t help but leave the arena with smiles on their faces. The outcome meant far more to them as they continue fighting for a playoff berth in the tight Western Conference.
They were less than five minutes from a loss until Alex Burrows tied the score with a nice redirection from the slot. Sami Salo also had a goal and Luongo made 36 saves for Vancouver (30-21-8).
Jason Blake and Matt Stajan replied for the Maple Leafs (21-26-12). Toskala finished with 35 stops.
“I thought we played a good game,” said Toronto coach Ron Wilson. “It was high intensity with good end-to-end action.”
Added forward Dominic Moore: “It was a hard-fought game by both teams. Both goalies were sharp, and it was a nice night for Mats. He got the appreciation he deserved.”
While some fans chose to boo Sundin in his first game at the arena as a visiting player, he was mostly well-received. The longtime Leafs captain got choked up in the first period when he received a long standing ovation after a video tribute was played on the scoreboard.
“There were tears coming,” said Sundin. “That was very special.”
The ovation actually kept the game from starting up again.
Like everyone else in the building, the players on the ice simply watched Sundin rather than line up for the faceoff. Centre Matt Stajan was out for the Maple Leafs and was in no hurry to take the draw.
“It was his moment – obviously, I was going to sit back and let him enjoy it,” said Stajan. “I wasn’t going into the faceoff circle before he did.
“He was doing a few spins, we were tapping our sticks, but I couldn’t see his face. And then I had to win the faceoff, it was a big one in the defensive zone. I won it and then he cross-checked me in the back.”
Clearly, the special treatment didn’t carry on to the ice. Moore shoved Sundin a few times in the first period and set off a scrum in front of the Canucks bench.
The Maple Leafs emerged from that melee with a power play and Blake soon made it 1-0. He tipped Pavel Kubina’s point shot by Roberto Luongo at 12:06 and pumped his fists in celebration of a team-leading 22nd goal of the season.
At the other end, Toskala looked solid during his first start in a week. He stopped a long shot from Sundin in the first period and got his glove on a good power-play chance by Steve Bernier early in the second.
The Toronto goalie can’t be faulted for the goal that tied the game at 9:49 of the second period. Salo’s point shot deflected off Niklas Hagman’s shin pad and behind Toskala on a power play.
Stajan got that back with a rare short-handed goal. He carried the puck into Vancouver’s zone and beat Luongo through the legs with a low shot at 16:11. That gave him a career-best 41 points on the season.
It looked like that might stand up when the Canucks weren’t able to score on a four minute power play in the third period. However, Burrows made sure that didn’t happen with his tip-in goal at 16:03.
The game was headed for overtime, giving Sundin a little extra time in front of the Toronto fans. And he made good use of it.
Sundin genuinely seemed to enjoy his return to Toronto and admitted that the buildup to the game was a bit taxing. Even still, getting the chance to see some old friends made it all worthwhile.
“I have a lot of memories with a lot of the guys,” said Sundin. “But it’s kind of nice to have it over with too now.”
Notes: Wellwood played 189 games for the Leafs over the last four seasons … Nikolai Kulemin was a healthy scratch for Toronto … Leafs defenceman Pavel Kubina picked up his 300th career point … Sundin is Toronto’s franchise leader with 420 goals and 987 points … Announced attendance was 19,504.