April 11, 2006(TORONTO) (CP) --
The Maple Leafs' belated bid for an NHL playoff berth seems like a hopeless cause, but don't try telling that to Mats Sundin.
Toronto's captain scored four goals and set up Nik Antropov and Tomas Kaberle in a 6-5 win over the Florida Panthers that moved the Leafs to within five points of Tampa Bay and the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth Tuesday night.
|The Panthers couldn't hold Sundin down. |
(Graig Abel Photography)
"That was one of the best single performances I've ever seen,'' awed teammate Darcy Tucker said of Sundin's performance. "He's been playing unbelievably.''
"Everybody has bought in and is following his lead.''
The Leafs survived a boarding penalty against Alexei Ponikarovsky 90 seconds into overtime and, after Florida's Nathan Horton was sent off for holding, Kaberle scored the winning goal when he cruised into the middle of Florida's zone and converted a Sundin pass with 11 seconds left in sudden death.
Kaberle preferred to talk about Sundin rather than his big goal.
"He's been a great leader for us,'' said the Czech defenceman.
Toronto has four games left and the Lightning three. It's unlikely the Leafs will make it, but nobody will be able to say Sundin didn't give his all in trying to stop his team from missing the post-season for the first time since 1998.
"We're never going to give back,'' said Kaberle.
Sundin spearheaded the power play, which went 5-for-9, and he killed penalties, too. His ice time came to 25 minutes 18 seconds.
"He did everything for us,'' said coach Pat Quinn.
Sundin, as is his habit, downplayed his heroics.
"That's why I'm a big fan of sports - you never know what's going to happen,'' he said. "There've been nights this year I've played better hockey but hit a post, hit a crossbar, hit a shin pad, the puck doesn't go in and you get frustrated.''
"Tonight, hey, I played a good game but it was a night where the puck seems to follow you, and every shot you take goes in the net. That's sports. I'm just happy that it happened tonight.''
For the previously-eliminated Panthers, former Leaf Joe Nieuwendyk scored three goals and Olli Jokinen and Jay Bouwmeester one each.
On any other night, Nieuwendyk would have been the hero. Not this time, and No. 25 knew very well that No. 13 was who everybody was talking about.
"Mats is a great captain and a good friend,'' said the former Leaf. "Sometimes he takes some abuse (in Toronto) but this guy cares as much as any captain I've ever played with, and he steps his game up when he has to.''
Toronto emptied all its offensive guns to put a season-high 53 shots on Jamie McLennan. Florida got 26 on Jean-Sebastien Aubin.
Aubin made his eighth straight start in goal for the Leafs, who have earned 14 of a possible 16 points since Aubin (6-0-2) took over after being called up from the AHL's Toronto Marlies when Ed Belfour ended his season a month ago to have back surgery.
Toronto trailed 2-1 after one period despite outshooting Florida 18-7.
Jokinen slapped in a high shot from the top of the circle to the right of Aubin at 7:29 for his 37th goal, and Nieuwendyk finished off a two-on-one break at 8:03 after he got behind AHL call-up Ian White.
Sundin replied at 17:27, and he scored again at the 49-second mark of the second period. Both were slap shots from the left of McLennan on power plays.
"We got a two-goal lead and they got power play after power play,'' Jokinen said afterwards. "That's how they got back in the game _ they scored pretty much every power play.''
Florida went up 3-2 on a Nieuwendyk power-play goal from a low wrist shot from the circle to the left of Aubin at the four-minute mark.
Antropov tied it 3-3 at 18:08 with two Panthers in the penalty box. The Kazakh planted himself in front of McLennan and slammed home a Sundin pass for his 11th goal. The Leafs had a 20-7 shots advantage in the second period.
Nieuwendyk put Florida up 4-3 with the first shot on goal in the third period. White fell down, Nieuwendyk breezed past him for a breakaway, and he pulled the puck to his backhand before lifting it past Aubin for his 25th goal.
The out-of-town scoreboard showed Tampa Bay losing, which gave the Leafs a boost. The Lightning would fall 6-2 to Atlanta.
Sundin tied it at four from point-blank range with his third power-play goal of the night at 3:11. Kyle Wellwood set him up for the third time.
Sundin gave Toronto its first lead of the night at 11:10, racing to the front of the crease to deflect in an Antropov pass out of a corner for his 27th goal.
The last Leaf with four in a game was Steve Sullivan on April 10, 1999, also against Florida.
Bouwmeester poked in a rebound during a scramble to tie it at five at 16:37 with Aubin sitting in his crease facing the net. Florida had an 11-9 shots edge in the third period.
In overtime, Florida got a shot on Aubin before Ponikarovsky nailed Bouwmeester in a corner of Florida's zone at 1:30. The Leafs penalty killers held the fort, and then they got their ninth power play thanks to Horton.
"That's the way our season has gone,'' said Nieuwendyk. "We've had too many penalties all season long and, clearly, when you take a lot of penalties against a good power play like (Toronto's) you're going to get burned.''
Notes: Marlies coach Paul Maurice, watched from the management box high above ice level. ... The Leafs finish up with a road game against the New York Islanders on Thursday, a home game against Ottawa on Saturday, a bus ride down the QEW to Buffalo on Sunday, and a home game against Pittsburgh on Tuesday.