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Sundin hitting his stride after slow start with Canucks

Friday, 02.20.2009 / 10:16 AM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

Now that he's watched all 17 games Mats Sundin has played in a Vancouver Canucks uniform, CBC Sports hockey analyst Kelly Hrudey admits his original expectations for the big Swede were a bit inflated.

"I thought he was going to have more of an impact early, but clearly after watching the first three or four games he was a step behind and conditioning was an issue," Hrudey told NHL.com. "I was fooled, but I think most of the hockey world did say it was going to take some time, and now we're seeing it."

After using the first nine games of his comeback to reacquaint himself to the NHL, Sundin has come on to make the Canucks one of the more dangerous teams heading into the stretch run of the regular season.

He'll try to keep the points coming Saturday night in what should be one of the most emotional games of the season anywhere. Sundin will play in Toronto -- where he spent 13 seasons and became the Maple Leafs' all-time leading scorer -- as the opponent for the first time since March 26, 1994, when he was a 23-year-old center for the Quebec Nordiques.

He's trying to keep his focus on the game, not his return. But no one is fooled.

"He knows it's not (just another game) and he realizes it's going to be an emotional time for him," Canucks TV color commentator John Garrett told NHL.com. "In the Vancouver papers on Sunday, with two games before the Toronto game, the headlines were about how this trip is all about Mats."

The Canucks were all about Mats on Dec. 18, when the 37-year-old center signed his highly anticipated one-year contract. At the time, Vancouver was first in the Northwest Division, but goaltender Roberto Luongo was out and their time at the top was running short.

Sundin played his first game Jan. 7, but the Canucks won only three of the first nine games after his signing. Vancouver beat Edmonton, 4-2, in Sundin's debut, but didn't win again until they beat Carolina, 4-3, at GM Place on Feb. 3.

Sundin was the scapegoat for the Canucks' 0-5-3 stretch. He had just 3 points, 19 shots on goal, 16 penalty minutes and a minus-6 rating.

Garrett said Sundin's timing was so off that he couldn't handle simple passes and barely made contact when he was fed one-timers. Faceoffs also were a problem.

"The unfortunate thing was the Canucks were struggling and he did sign a big ticket and he was expected to help turn the team back around," Garrett said. "The expectations were unrealistic."

"There were some doubters on the West Coast," CBC Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Jim Hughson told NHL.com. "He got ripped pretty badly because he just wasn't getting it done, but anybody that knew him said all along that he would get up to speed, and he has."

Starting with that Feb. 3 game against the Hurricanes, Sundin's play has mirrored Vancouver's. In eight games this month, he has 9 points, a plus-4 rating and just two penalty minutes, as the Canucks have gone 7-1-0.

Granted, 7 of Sundin's 9 points this month came in three straight games from Feb. 3-10, but his linemates, Ryan Kesler and Pavol Demitra, have continued to score, combining for 21 points since joining Sundin on a line against Carolina.

"He knows it's not (just another game) and he realizes it's going to be an emotional time for him. In the Vancouver papers on Sunday, with two games before the Toronto game, the headlines were about how this trip is all about Mats."
-- Canucks TV commentator John Garrett

"I personally think (Kesler) should be in the running for the Selke Trophy because not only is he great defensively, he's got some offensive flair and he's just a hard, hard guy to play against," Hrudey said. "I think he complements the smarts of a Demitra, a guy that thinks the game really well, and Sundin is just everything that a hockey player should be. He's big, hard to knock off the puck, smart, he has great offensive instincts."

It took roughly two months, but Sundin has given the Canucks depth they just didn't have before. With Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows forming the first line, Sundin's presence has given the Canucks two formidable scoring lines.

With a healthy Luongo, third and fourth lines that are hard to play against, and a better-than-average defense, Hrudey said the Canucks are legitimate contenders right now, and definitely a team no one will want to face in the first round of the playoffs.

"One of the biggest things (Sundin) has been able to do is give the Canucks an option and the other teams a dilemma," Garrett said. "Calgary the other night, who do you play Robyn Regehr against? He's their best shut-down guy and it's always been an automatic that you play your best shut-down guy against Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Now with Mats there, the coach has to make a choice."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.
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