The captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs was eased back into the lineup by coach Paul Maurice with a fourth-line assignment Saturday after missing seven games with an elbow injury. Imagine a cameo appearance in “The Departed” for Jack Nicholson instead of the leading role. Impossible.
So, expect the six-foot-five Swede to take the opening faceoff when the Leafs face the visiting Boston Bruins for the fourth time in nine games Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET).
Kyle Wellwood and Alexei Ponikarovsky will likely be on his wings after Maurice reshuffled forward combinations in practice Monday in search of more offence after a 3-1 loss to the Bruins. Putting Sundin back where he belongs was common-sense casting.
“It doesn’t really matter,” said Sundin, who has been the ultimate team player during his 11 years in Toronto. “I haven’t played for three weeks so, whatever Paul wants to do, I’m fine with that.
“Whatever role he gives me, I’ll be glad to take it.”
He knows one thing for sure: “We all have to play better, including myself.”
The Leafs earned nine of the possible 14 points without Sundin. The Bruins’ checking frustrated them.
“We didn’t play well the other night, and it had nothing to do with him coming back,” big defenceman Hal Gill said of Sundin. “He’s someone we count on, and we’re happy he made it back as quickly as he did.”
Matt Stajan was between Darcy Tucker and Jeff O’Neill, Nik Antropov centred Mike Peca and Bates Battaglia, and Alex Steen was between Chad Kilger and John Pohl for practice.
Tucker has 16 goals, including a league-high 11 on power plays. Set-ups by defencemen Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, and at least two other factors explain the output.
“They pass the puck so well, and a lot of it has to do with luck and timing,” said Tucker.
Tucker has benefitted perhaps more than any other Leaf from the coaching of Maurice. He’s having a ball.
“Playing in Toronto is a lot of fun,” he said. “You come to the rink and it’s packed for every game.
“You have a little more adrenalin in your body than maybe you’d have playing in some other places.”
Peca had many a run-in with Tucker when they were opponents, and he can see a change that is allowing Tucker to enjoy a career-best season: there are fewer tirades.
“He curtails it from time to time now,” said Peca. “Years ago, it was a constant type of energy.
“He’s better at picking his spots now.”
Peca says he’s looking forward to skating with Antropov and Battaglia.
“It’s always a benefit to have big, strong guys on the wings,” he said. “They’re both great puck possession guys so I’m going to make sure I do the job of controlling the puck through the neutral zone and getting them the puck in the offensive zone.
“We could be very effective as a line.”
Antropov and Ponikarovsky had meshed well as linemates.
“Ponikarovsky and Antropov will play together again this season at different times and probably during games when we can’t seem to get anything going down low in the offensive zone,” Maurice explained.
He’s trying to spread the size around. Otherwise, “We’ve got a lot of eggs in one basket.”
Steen’s demotion to a bit role is understandable given that he has only one goal in 25 games. He scored 18 goals as a rookie last winter.
“I’ve definitely had more of a defensive role this season but that’s no excuse” for the lack of goals, said Steen.
Said Maurice: “I’m not down on him at all.”
Notes: Maurice doesn’t criticize players publicly, and it is a trait they love. It makes them all feel as if they belong. “We don’t want any renters here,” says Maurice. “We want them all to feel as if they are owners.” . . . Maurice is also popular with referees because he’s so different than previous coach Pat Quinn, who harangued striped shirts continuously. “They’re not out there to get you,” reasons Maurice. “They’re trying to do the best job they can.” . . . D Tomas Kaberle was too ill to practice but he’ll play Tuesday . . . In Peca’s mind, Boston has outplayed Toronto “eight of the nine periods we’ve played them.” Adds Peca: “We’re getting frustrated and all that but I think we’re going to come out with a bit more edge to our game (Tuesday).” . . . D Ian White got a ride to practice with Stajan, who lives in the apartment building next to him. Pohl lives in the same building as White, so he’ll offer rides, too. White will probably have his driver’s licence suspended for at least a year after being cited by police Nov. 18 for driving while disqualified. White was convicted of impaired driving in September . . . The Leafs play Thursday at Atlanta and Saturday at Montreal.