|Mats Sundin, who was acquired by Cliff Fletcher in his first stint as GM of the Maple Leafs, scored the game winner in Flectcher's first game back as GM.
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One of Cliff Fletcher’s best acquisitions from his first stint as Toronto Maple Leafs
’ general manager made sure his second stint got off to a good start.
Sundin, acquired by Fletcher from the Quebec Nordiques in June 1994, scored the game-winner with 29.2 seconds remaining on Wednesday night to give the Leafs a 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals at the Air Canada Centre ( 700K ).
One day after taking over on an interim basis after John Ferguson Jr. was fired, Fletcher watched from the press box as his team blew a pair of one-goal leads and appeared headed for overtime before Sundin’s heroics.
“With everything that's happened, we all feel pressure to win," Sundin said. "Everybody feels it's time to pull up the socks."
The Leafs’ captain scored the 544th goal of his career, tying Maurice Richard for 24th on the all-time list, when he swept a rebound under Olaf Kolzig to win the opener of a home-and-home series that continues Thursday night in Washington.
"We've got bigger and more important things to think about right now," Sundin said of the milestone. "But Rocket Richard was a player we all know about and to score as many as him and be mentioned with him is a great honor."
Though the Leafs never trailed, they often appeared outmanned against the speedy Caps, who outshot them 32-24 and had far more chances. Vesa Toskala made 30 saves, many of them superb, for his 17th victory.
Toronto’s Chad Kilger opened the scoring at 7:12 when he deflected Anton Stralman’s pass from the blue line past Kolzig for his ninth goal of the season.
Alexander Ovechkin tied it 2:27 into the second period when he grabbed a loose puck in the middle of Toronto's zone and fired a wrist shot into a top corner of the net so quickly that Toskala looked frozen. It was his League-leading 39th of the season ( 700K ).
Alex Steen put Toronto up 2-1 at 18:44 of the second. Sundin darted out from behind the net and sent a cross-crease pass to an onrushing Nik Antropov, who missed the puck and went flying. Steen was alone to Kolzig's right, and the puck landed on his stick for an easy putaway into the open side of the net.
Alexander Semin tied it 2-2 at 13:07 of the third when he dipsy-doodled around defenseman Pavel Kubina, deked Toskala out of position and stuffed the puck into the wide-open net for his 12th goal.
After being hired on an interim basis, Fletcher served notice to the players that they'd better quickly move into position to challenge for a playoff berth if they wanted to avoid roster changes. With the Feb. 26 trading deadline closing in, Fletcher said Tuesday that "within two weeks we should be prepared to, philosophically at least, know what direction we've chosen to go in."
For one night, that direction was full speed ahead toward the playoffs. The Leafs won for the fourth time in their last five games and moved even at 48 points with the idle Florida Panthers, who are 12th in the Eastern Conference.
"It was good to get a win in his first game," Toskala said. "It was a huge two points for us."
The Leafs hit bottom when they were swept on a California trip earlier this month. Since then, they’ve picked up their game.
"We really kept building on some of the good things we've been doing," Sundin said. "We played a really fast team that has been playing well. We've been playing better defensively and giving ourselves a chance to win."
The loss snapped Washington’s four-game winning streak and dropped the Caps back to the .500 mark at 22-22-5.
“We didn't give up, but we didn't play our best hockey," Washington defenseman Tom Poti said. "We didn't play that well in the second period, and it showed."
Washington had won and eight of its previous 10 and has been among the NHL’s most improved teams since Bruce Boudreau took over as coach when Glen Hanlon was fired on Nov. 22.
"In spurts, they came on, and they played very good," Boudreau said of the Leafs. "From the bench, we recognized their spurts and their pushes. We just didn't contain them."
The Leafs lost Alexei Ponikarovsky midway through the first period when he went down with an injured right shoulder after being drilled into the end boards by Washington’s Steve Eminger.
Material from wire services was used in this report.