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Leafs captain Mats Sundin playing stellar hockey as he turns 36 Tuesday

"Physically and mentally I feel as strong as I ever have," Sundin said Monday after practice at Air Canada Centre. He's playing his best hockey of the season since the all-star break, collecting points in all seven games (four goals, five assists) while lifting his team back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.

The ninth-place Leafs sit two points behind eighth-place Carolina and face another big one Tuesday night against the 10th-place New York Islanders, who are only one point behind Toronto.

Whether or not it's because he knows he's running out of time, the star centre seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder this season, showing more emotion both on and off the ice. For example, he's twice dropped f-bombs in recent weeks in post-game comments, something nobody who's been around the team for years can remember ever happening.

"I'm not getting any younger," Sundin said Monday. "If you miss the playoffs that's another year that has gone by. I think we're all feeling the necessary urgency."

Head coach Paul Maurice has also felt that chip on his captain's shoulder.

"He's been consistent with that this year," said Maurice. "He's done a really great job showing young players what it's like having that pressure and how to carry that pressure."

Sundin has a done a masterful job of keeping the media at arms' length throughout his 12 seasons with the Leafs. Nobody really pretends to now him that well.

His calm demeanour with the outside world may have also been misinterpreted for years, that somehow he didn't have the same passion as former captains Doug Gilmour or Wendel Clark.

"Maybe the perception of Mats from the outside is a little bit of a quiet leader who doesn't say a whole lot and he's very even-keeled. And I think a lot of that is true," said Maurice. "But being in the room every day, you see a completely different side. In-between periods and on the bench he's a lot more vocal than I think I anticipated.

"He's a real good leader."

Getting his team back in the playoff race has almost muted the talk from earlier this season about whether the Leafs should trade Sundin and rebuild. That's out of the question as long as they stay in the race.

It sits well with Sundin, who doesn't want to leave.

"I really want to stay and be a Maple Leaf," said Sundin, who has a no-trade clause in his deal. "First of all, I really believe we have a strong chance to make the playoffs. And if you make it in these days, you have a great chance to win.

"It's not where it was before where it was four teams who really had a chance to win the Cup at the start of the playoffs. Nowadays there's 16 teams that have a legit chance to win."

The Leafs hold a club option on Sundin for next season but would rather re-sign him to a new extension. His $4.56-million option carries a $6.33-million salary cap hit (because it's the average of the entire contract that counts against the cap) and the Leafs would prefer a new deal with a smaller cap charge. There were contract talks earlier this season but none of late.

Either way, Sundin doesn't see himself wearing a different uniform.

"For myself personally, I want to win a championship here with the Toronto Maple Leafs," said Sundin.

"It's my home," he added. "I'm very happy with being here. I'm happy with the guys here, I think we have a team right now that's very passionate about the game. I like our young players."

So just how long does he think he'll stick around?

"Hopefully I have some more hockey in me for sure," he said, before later adding the proviso, "I want to be out there and play at the level that I'm used to playing."

Translation: he's not going to hang around for the paycheque. Once he stops being a difference-maker, he'll quit. Right now he's still having a blast.

"Once you get to my age, in my case anyway, I do enjoy even more coming to the rink," he said. "You do realize it's not going to last forever."


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