EDMONTON – Mats Sundin was ready, but rusty, in his Vancouver Canucks debut – but in the end it didn’t matter.
Sundin’s new teammate Steve Bernier and his linemates stole the show as the Canucks downed the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 Wednesday. “Physically, I felt better than I was hoping. It’s good to get that first game out of the way,” said Sundin after the game at Rexall Place, which improved the Canucks’ record to 22-15-5 and dropped the Oilers to 19-17-3.
It was the first NHL game in nine months for the 37-year-old Swede, who signed with the Canucks as a free agent on Dec. 18.
His final stat line: 15 minutes of ice time over 24 shifts, no goals, no assists, no shots on net, one hit and nine for 18 on face-offs.
He admitted his hands failed him at times.
“It’s timing, where you come in and shoot, you jam yourself a little bit. And when you’re trying to make a pass (it goes) over a stick,” he said.
“It felt exactly like where you are at the start of a season, where you’re trying to get it back, but the only way to get it back is to play games.”
The line of Bernier, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler combined for three goals and eight points.
Bernier scored twice in 12 seconds to break a 1-1 tie late in the second period.
“It’s a great boost for your confidence,” said Bernier, who said he couldn’t remember scoring two goals that quickly.
“(But) what’s important is the team played well tonight. We didn’t give up a lot of scoring chances and we finished with the two points. Now we have to build on that.”
Oiler defenceman Sheldon Souray said the two goals were like a dagger in the heart.
“It was tough to have a couple little breakdowns get you bang, bang like that,” he said.
“Before that, I thought it was a well-played 1-1 game. All of a sudden it is 3-1. That definitely changed the momentum.”
Oiler captain Ethan Moreau added, “We didn’t generate enough early, especially when we had the power plays in the first.
“Defensively we played all right, but we just didn’t have our skill game going.”
Burrows and Pavol Demitra also scored for Vancouver while Robert Nilsson and Erik Cole replied for the Oilers in a hard-fought game highlighted by hard hits and Souray’s one-punch knockdown of Canuck defenceman Mattias Ohlund.
Sundin, as per the plan worked out with Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault, saw limited action – about 14 minutes – though he was twice put on the power play with first-line wingers Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The former captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs skated primarily between wingers Kyle Wellwood and Mason Raymond and was booed every time he touched the puck.
He said he heard the boos before the game, but not during it.
When asked if he had any idea why he was booed, he replied: “No, and I’m not going to worry about it either.”
Sundin – signed to a half-season deal worth about US$5 million – hadn’t played played since the end of the regular season last year.
He is slated to make his home debut Friday when the Canucks host the St. Louis Blues and will play his first game against his old teammates when Vancouver visits Toronto on Feb. 21.
The Leafs all-time leading scorer, Sundin left Toronto last spring under a cloud when he refused a request by the team at the trade deadline to waive the no-trade clause in his contract.
He spent 13 seasons with Toronto after being acquired from the Quebec Nordiques and has recorded 555 goals and 1,321 points in his NHL regular-season career.
After a scoreless first period, Burrows opened the scoring at 14:07 of the second, streaking into the slot to one-time a Bernier pass from behind the net past Oiler goalie Dwayne Roloson.
The Oilers responded a minute and a half later on the power play. Winger Nilsson outmuscled his defender in a goal-mouth scramble to knock home a loose puck.
At 17:20, Bernier took a Kesler pass in the high slot and fired it past Roloson to make it 2-1. On the next shift, Burrows grabbed the puck in the corner and fed Bernier at the side of the net for his ninth goal of the season.
The Oilers made it close with 11 minutes left in the game. Cole, standing at the side of the net, redirected a Steve Staios blue-line slapshot low past LaBarbera.
But with Roloson pulled for an extra attacker, Demitra scored to seal the victory.
It was a physical game. Canuck defenceman Willie Mitchell set the tone early by hammering the Oilers’ Tom Gilbert face-first into the endboards, leaving Gilbert on his knees.
In the opening seconds of the second frame, Ohlund rocked Cole head first into the side boards in a hit eerily reminiscent of the one that broke his neck almost three years ago. Souray immediately squared off with Ohlund and dropped him with a right hand square in the face as the crowd roared.