TORONTO (AP) -Mats Sundin really couldn't have picked a better way to say goodbye.
Scoring the shootout winner with the entire Air Canada Centre crowd on its feet was one thing. But the most special moment of an entertaining evening came when Sundin was selected the first star and returned to the ice by himself.
He took a bow, blew kisses in the air and waved to the people who came to adore him over 13 memorable seasons with the Maple Leafs. There were even a few tears in his eyes as he skated off the ice in Toronto for what could be the final time as an NHL player.
"There's been a buildup for this game," Sundin said moments after giving the Vancouver Canucks a 3-2 victory Saturday night. "All the battles and everything we've gone through over the last 13 years with the Leafs, so many ups and downs and disappointments and happiness. A lot of feelings came to mind on the ice.
"The ovation from the fans was very special. I'll remember that the rest of my life."
This was one of the rare cases where the quality of the game managed to match its considerable hype.
The overtime period saw the teams trade chances and both goalies make great saves. Then, of course, there was Sundin ending the shootout by beating Vesa Toskala with his patented backhand move.
It made for great theater.
"It was a perfect ending," Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo said.
Added teammate Kyle Wellwood: "It's just one of those nights where you give (Sundin) a chance like that, you know he's going to be able to score."
The Canucks couldn't help but leave the arena with smiles on their faces. The outcome meant far more to them as they continue fighting for a playoff berth in the tight Western Conference.
They were less than 5 minutes from a loss until Alex Burrows tied it with a nice redirection from the slot. Sami Salo also had a goal and Luongo made 36 saves.
Jason Blake and Matt Stajan replied for the Maple Leafs, and Toskala finished with 35 stops.
"I thought we played a good game," Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. "It was high intensity with good end-to-end action."
While some fans chose to boo Sundin in his first game at the arena as a visiting player, he was mostly well-received. The longtime Leafs captain got choked up in the first period when he received a long standing ovation after a video tribute was played on the scoreboard.
"There were tears coming," Sundin said. "That was very special."
The ovation actually kept the game from starting up again.
Like everyone else in the building, the players on the ice simply watched Sundin rather than line up for the faceoff. Center Matt Stajan was out for the Maple Leafs and was in no hurry to take the draw.
"It was his moment - obviously, I was going to sit back and let him enjoy it," Stajan said. "I wasn't going into the faceoff circle before he did.
"He was doing a few spins, we were tapping our sticks, but I couldn't see his face. And then I had to win the faceoff, it was a big one in the defensive zone. I won it and then he cross-checked me in the back."
Clearly, the special treatment didn't carry on to the ice. Dominic Moore shoved Sundin a few times in the first period and set off a scrum in front of the Vancouver bench.
The Maple Leafs emerged from that melee with a power play and Blake soon made it 1-0. He tipped Pavel Kubina's point shot by Luongo at 12:06 and pumped his fists in celebration of a team-leading 22nd goal of the season.
At the other end, Toskala looked solid during his first start in a week. He stopped a long shot from Sundin in the first period and got his glove on a good power-play chance by Steve Bernier early in the second.
The Toronto goalie can't be faulted for the goal that tied it at 9:49 of the second period. Salo's point shot deflected off Niklas Hagman's shin pad and behind Toskala on a power play.
Stajan got that back with a rare short-handed goal. He carried the puck into Vancouver's zone and beat Luongo through the legs with a low shot at 16:11. That gave him a career-best 41 points on the season.
It looked as if that might stand up when the Canucks weren't able to score on a four minute power play in the third period. However, Burrows made sure that didn't happen with his tip-in goal at 16:03.
The game was headed for overtime, giving Sundin a little extra time in front of the Toronto fans. And he made good use of it.
Sundin genuinely seemed to enjoy his return to Toronto and admitted that the buildup to the game was a bit taxing. Even still, getting the chance to see some old friends made it all worthwhile.
"I have a lot of memories with a lot of the guys," Sundin said. "But it's kind of nice to have it over with too now."
Notes: Wellwood played 189 games for the Leafs over the last four seasons ... Nikolai Kulemin was a healthy scratch for Toronto ... Leafs defenseman Pavel Kubina picked up his 300th career point ... Sundin is Toronto's franchise leader with 420 goals and 987 points ... The announced attendance was 19,504.
|PPG - Jason Blake (22) ASST: Pavel Kubina (21), Lee Stempniak (20)|
1 - 0 TOR
|PPG - Sami Salo (4) ASST: Pavol Demitra (20), Henrik Sedin (44)|
1 - 1 Tie
|SHG - Matt Stajan (14) ASST: Ian White (11)|
2 - 1 TOR
|Alexandre Burrows (15) ASST: Daniel Sedin (34), Henrik Sedin (45)|
2 - 2 Tie
|1||J. Blake||P. Demitra|
|2||N. Hagman||K. Wellwood|
|3||M. Grabovski||M. Sundin|
|Jaime Sifers Roughing against Shane O'Brien|
|Shane O'Brien Roughing against Jason Blake|
|Ryan Kesler Roughing against Dominic Moore|
|Ryan Kesler Roughing against Dominic Moore|
|Dominic Moore Roughing against Ryan Kesler|
|Nik Antropov Boarding against Ryan Kesler|
|Dominic Moore Hi-sticking against Kevin Bieksa|
|Alexander Edler Hooking against Nik Antropov|
|Niklas Hagman Interference against Alexandre Burrows|
|Shane O'Brien Interference against Jamal Mayers|
|Dominic Moore Hi stick - double minor against Willie Mitchell|
|Mattias Ohlund Interference against Nik Antropov|
|Steve Bernier Roughing against Dominic Moore|
|Kevin Bieksa Hooking against Jason Blake|
|Dominic Moore Roughing against Steve Bernier|