TORONTO – Mats Sundin is solidifying his reputation as one of the greatest players to ever skate for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Many years from now, a lot of Leafs fans will be saying he was the best of them all, and they’ll have good reason.
Having already passed Hockey Hall of Famers Dave Keon and Darryl Sittler for most goals and points in club history, Marvellous Mats equalled the goals output of another former NHL and Leafs great, Frank Mahovlich, during a 3-0 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.
“I’m very humbled to be mentioned with players like that – Darryl Sittler and all these legends of the hockey world and the Maple Leafs,” said Sundin. “To be mentioned in the same breath as those guys is something that is very humbling and that I’m proud of, but it’s tough to take in when you’re in the middle of a season.
“You can look back on that when you’re done and be even more proud of it.”
Sundin’s 10th goal of the season was the 533rd of his career, tying him with Mahovlich for 27th spot on the all-time league list. His 1,270th point moved him within 11 of Alex Delvecchio for 30th in that department.
The 36-year-old Swede has 24 points to rank among league leaders this season. The last Toronto player to win the Art Ross Trophy was Gordie Drillon in 1938. Sundin is unlikely to win it because he’s a conscientious two-way player, but being among the leaders at this stage is proof that he is having a banner season.
He’s driven by the burning desire to get Toronto back to the playoffs, where it hasn’t been since 2004.
He’s frustrated by his belief that his team is better than it was last season yet has earned points at a poorer rate than that squad.
The Leafs had 21 points in 21 games after upsetting the No. 1 Senators. They went from playing their worst game, a 5-2 loss Thursday in Boston, to playing their best.
“Yeah, how do you explain that?” Sundin responded when the contrast was thrown up for discussion. “You know, even though we had a bad game against Boston, I think the last couple of weeks we’ve played some pretty good hockey.
“Since we played Montreal in Montreal (and won 3-2 on Nov. 3), we’ve done some things a lot better. I think we’re realizing a little bit what it takes to win in this league and we’re doing some better things, especially defensively.”
They’ll try to keep it going when the Bruins skate into Air Canada Centre on Tuesday. They then hit the road for games in Dallas on Friday and in Phoenix on Saturday.
“The key in this league is consistency and we know that,” said Sundin. “We’ve got to solve that.
“We’ve been doing a lot of things better defensively the last couple of weeks as a group. We are going to score goals. We have a talented team offensively, but we haven’t been good defensively. That’s something you can work on. It’s all discipline and hard work. If we take care of our own end, we’re going to be a playoff team. The coaches are challenging us about that and we have to come out every day and try to get better defensively.”
The shutout win came at a crucial time. The Leafs had gone winless in five in a row at home. Another loss would have reinforced the notion among fans that Sundin and his teammates were doomed to miss the playoffs again, and it would have been an arrow to the heart of the team’s self-confidence. But they got the win they needed most.
“It’s important for us as a team to realize we can play against any team in the league,” said Sundin. “If we had any doubters in the room, I hope all of that is gone.
“You’ve got to keep faith. Any teams that lose faith are in for a tough year. It doesn’t matter how bad things are going for you, you need to have faith in the room that you are a good enough team to be a playoff team, that you have good enough players to compete against the best. You play every other night and you need to have that faith when you come down to practice or to play.
“Last year we had that faith. Even though we went through a lot of tough times we almost made it in. We were 10 games over .500 and got 90 points. This year we’re a better team but we need to keep that faith to improve as a group.”
Saturday was a huge building block.
Vesa Toskala’s perfect goaltending, the play of reunited defencemen Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle and two goals from what had been a dormant power play helped it happen.
Coach Paul Maurice had used McCabe and Kaberle apart but Pavel Kubina’s exit from the lineup with a knee injury prompted him to put them back together. It shouldn’t have taken Maurice this long to realize that is where they belong.
“That’s going to be great for us, if they continue to play like that,” said Sundin. “They’ve arguably been one of the best defensive pairings in the league for the last five or six years.
“It’s nice to see them together. The chemistry they had … they were outstanding.”
It was only Toronto’s third win in regulation time over Ottawa in the last 20 meetings.
“It was a big challenge for us,” said Sundin. “They’re arguably the best team in the league right now so for us to measure up the way we did against them . . . if any of the players doubted in the dressing room what we can do and be a playoff team and beat the best, it shouldn’t be there now.
“The sky is the limit for this group.”