For 13 seasons, Mats Sundin was the heart and soul of the Toronto Maple Leafs and became a franchise icon.
On Saturday night, Sundin will likely receive a long - and well-deserved - standing ovation when he leads the Vancouver Canucks into Air Canada Centre to face the Maple Leafs, the team he captained for 10 seasons.
After becoming the first European player to be selected first overall in the NHL draft and four stellar campaigns in which he averaged 34 goals and 50 assists for Quebec, the Swedish-born Sundin was traded to the Maple Leafs in 1994. Though he never had a 100-point season with them or brought the Stanley Cup to Toronto, Sundin finished as the team's all-time leader with 420 goals and 987 points.
Around this time last year, then-Toronto interim general manager Cliff Fletcher wanted Sundin to waive his no-trade clause to try to rebuild a team that's failed to reach the playoffs each of the previous three seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Sundin refused, saying he didn't want to be a "rental player" for a team making a playoff run. Following months of speculation, Sundin in December opted to sign a prorated one-year contract with the Canucks (29-21-8) over the salary cap-strapped New York Rangers.
Sundin, who turned 38 on Feb. 13, certainly didn't sound anxious about facing his former team.
"I can't worry about what's going to go on around the rink or before or after the game," he said Thursday. "I'll go out and once the puck drops it's a hockey game like any other. We're in a race to earn a playoff spot and get into a good position for the playoffs, so that's all I'm going to worry about."
Matt Stajan, a teammate of Sundin's with Toronto from 2002-08, had a different take.
"There's no doubt it's going to be emotional," he said. "He may not show it as much as you guys may think, but definitely I don't see how it wouldn't be. I'm sure he's going to take it all in and enjoy the moment."
Sundin made his Canucks debut in a win over Edmonton on Jan. 7, but he failed to make an immediate impact as he totaled two goals with an assist while his new club went 1-5-3.
Beginning on Feb. 3 with a goal and assist in a win over Carolina, Sundin and the Canucks have been on a tear. He's had four goals and five assists while Vancouver has gone 7-1-0 to move within eight points of first-place Calgary in the Northwest.
Sundin had an assist in a 5-2 win over Ottawa on Thursday, but the top line of twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Alex Burrows combined for three goals and six assists as the Canucks won their third in a row.
Henrik Sedin, who had a goal and three assists, praised Burrows, who added a goal and two assists.
"He's able to make plays," he said. "He joins the rush, he enjoys our style of hockey game and he can make good passes, so it's a lot of fun."
Burrows has 14 goals and 17 assists in 58 games this season. His 31 points also matches his output in 82 games in 2007-08.
Amid the fanfare surrounding Sundin's return, the Maple Leafs (21-26-11) look to avoid their fourth straight home loss and fifth in six games overall. On Thursday, rookie Justin Pogge stopped 31 shots through overtime, but couldn't turn aside shootout attempts by Jason Williams and Rick Nash in a 4-3 defeat to Columbus.
Considered the Leafs' goaltender of the future, Pogge is 1-3-1 with a 3.95 goals-against average this season, but was sent to the minors on Friday.
Vesa Toskala, who needs one win to reach 20 for the fourth consecutive season, is 3-3-0 with a 3.57 GAA in seven career games against the Canucks. Neither he nor 450-game winner Curtis Joseph were able to beat the Canucks on Nov. 15 as they combined to stop only 11 shots in a 4-2 loss.
Jason Blake extended his home point streak to six games with an assist against the Blue Jackets. He has two goals and five assists during his run, and leads Toronto with 21 goals and 46 points in 2008-09.
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