The Leafs play again Sunday night (against the surprising Senators. I’m more than surprised, I’m stunned, at how well they are doing…) so I’ll save some observations for after tomorrow night’s game. A few quick thoughts for now after the win over the Penguins:
- I don’t think the Penguins received great goaltending, just as the Rangers did not the other night. But that’s that doesn’t take away from the Leafs victories. They are doing what they have to do to win games.
- Kessel was seemingly hurting or off his game a bit early on but still made the play to Lupul to set up Connolly’s first as a Leaf on the power play. Then, he finished beautifully on Connolly’s seat-of-his-pants set-up for the game-winner.
- Rebounds remain an issue for Gustavsson, but what a glove, eh? Some clutch saves earned two big points for the Leafs.
- Liles is playing big minutes but he is not at his best in front of the Leaf net…
- if the Penguins are good now (though I honestly thought they were flat Saturday night for the most part), I would imagine they will be even better with Fleury in net and when Malkin, Staal and Crosby are back (and all of them are one hundred per cent), if that every does occur…
- Grabbo set up one, scored one and arranged a great chance while killing a penalty but the Leafs couldn’t finish that time.
- Did Phaneuf remind us of Sundin a bit with his power spin move to set up MacArthur’s third-period marker? More importantly, while he was out-battled on one goal in front of Gustavsson, he continues to play confidently all over the ice.
As for Gustavsson, well, there have been enough good moments since he had to come in for Reimer last week to encourage even the most nervous Leaf fans. Most importantly, he did what Reimer had done before him (and no doubt will again) and that is: make huge saves when the game is in the balance.
Do that, Gus, and fans - and teammates - will feel a whole lot better about having you between the pipes. And those of us who have been defending you for a long time will sleep better at night...
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was a “polarizing” figure, I believe it’s fair to say that Mats Sundin was not every Leaf fan’s cup of tea during his years in blue and white.
Oh, he did have his share of devoted fans, and those who certainly liked him—maybe even appreciated him— as a player. But for many, he never engendered the kind of fan loyalty that say, Darryl Sittler, Mike Palmateer, Doug Gilmour or Wendel Clark did.
None of those guys ‘won Cups” in Toronto, but they were beloved Leafs. Sundin, well, somehow we expected more—even more than what he was able to deliver, which to me, was already quite a lot.
He was back at the ACC Saturday night to take in the Leaf game against the Penguins, and we come to discover he has evidently been re-associated with the Leaf organization as yet another of their roaming ambassadors (not sure if that is the appropriate word or description), much like Clark has been in recent years. (Is this official, by the way?)
For those that might be interested, I was invited to appear as a guest on “The Hook”, the outstanding talk show hosted by Norman James on CFPL 980 AM in London, Ontario Friday night, October 28. If you click on this link
it will take you to the conversation, which focused on how Leaf fans think about the long-time Captain.
In any event, Sundin's name inevitably starts a debate, with questions including:
Is he a Hall-of-Famer?
Is he a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer?
Where does he fit on the list of greatest Leafs of all-time? (Is he on the list?)
What might he have accomplished with better wingers during many of his 13 seasons in blue and white?
And (perhaps an unfair question) why, oh why, could he not lead our crew to the Stanley Cup?
Well, my view, upon reflection, is that the guy really did give everything he had as a Leaf, and particularly as a Maple Leaf captain. He met the media every day, often spoke in generalities and clichés, sure, but he faced the music in good times and bad.
He scored many brilliant goals, set up a lot more. He had big playoff games, some great playoff series, played hurt and was an ironman who rarely (I don’t think ever) missed prolonged or extended periods of play while with the Leafs.
Ironically, he was injured during the great playoff run in 2002, and returned—perhaps too soon. The team had played inspired hockey while he was hurt and head coach Pat Quinn was hospitalized. Alyn McCauley, among others, played some of the best hockey of their lives. But you can’t hold your captain back, and in the end, the Leafs seemed to actually play a little worse and succumbed somehow to a team they should have handled, the Hurricanes of Carolina.
But that doesn’t dull my memories of Sundin. If I had to pick a few fond memories, they would include:
- Quebec Coach Pierre Page yelling at him on the bench during a playoff game for the old Nordiques in the early ‘90s. Page was a demanding taskmaster and he no doubt thought the then young Sundin was not playing hard enough or smart enough. But Quebec’s later willingness to trade him was a huge coup for Cliff Fletcher and the Leaf franchise, in my eyes, though I hated giving up Sylvain Lefebvre, a wonderfully steady defenseman (in that trade famous deal involving Wendel Clark).
- Sundin’s many regular-season overtime winners. He was awfully dangerous in those four-on-four overtime situations.
- How he used to size and strength to bull his way around the opposition and come out front and use that great back-hand to create scoring chances for himself or linemates.
- His last-second Game 6 goal against the Hurricanes in the 2002 semi-finals at the ACC gave the Leafs life and a shot at winning it in overtime. (Unfortunately, a Mogilny give-away saw the Leaf season end quickly in OT.)
- His leading the Leafs past Ottawa (who were usually the superior regular-season team) in the playoffs on…what was it, four different occasions?
- Sundin’s desire to stay and play for Toronto rather than accept a trade to a contender at the trade deadline in his final season in Toronto. I realize many Leaf fans were upset with him. I was not. He was a genuinely loyal Leaf, and to me, it was not up to him to accept a trade so the team could build for the future.
- Importantly, what I remember about Mats is that (unlike so many professionals) rather than complain publicly about not having enough talent around him or demanding a trade or seeking free agency to play with a better team, he wanted to stay in Toronto and make the Leafs better. And he came close, in 1999 and 2002, to making some dreams come true. In 2003 and ’04 the Leafs were strong but faced a very good Flyer team and could not quite get past them. But they slowed down the Flyers enough that they had little left after facing the Leafs.
Mostly, I love the memory of seeing that great smile when he or a teammate scored a big goal at a key moment, and how we would joyfully embrace his teammates. Sundin always struck me as the kind of guy who was actually as happy for the success of others as he was when he scored himself. And I would venture to say that that is fairly rare in professional sports.
Yes, he was one of the finest Leafs of all-time, at least in the 50 plus years I’ve been observing the team. He deserves Hall-of-Fame induction and for a banner to be raised in his honour at the ACC some day.
That said, I’d enjoy hearing your perspective.