Mats Sundin believed he was making the right decision by choosing not to waive his no-trade clause to remain with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now, he has to try and help the Original Six team avoid missing the playoffs in three straight seasons for the first time in the franchise's storied history.
First, though, Sundin will try to guide the Maple Leafs past the struggling Tampa Bay Lighting on Friday night in the teams' final meeting this season.
Sundin was thought to be a top candidate to be dealt before Tuesday's trade deadline, but was among five Toronto players who invoked no-trade clauses in their contracts. His choice to stay immediately paid off for the Maple Leafs (28-28-9) as he scored in Monday's 5-0 win at Ottawa.
Sundin then notched two goals - including one to force overtime - and an assist in Wednesday's 4-3 shootout victory in Florida. He has four goals and an assist during a three-game points streak.
"He's the man here, and he's always been," said the Maple Leafs' Tomas Kaberle, who scored the only shootout goal. "Everybody follows him and tries to play like him."
Sundin leads the team with 28 goals and 66 points this season, and he's the franchise's all-time scoring leader with 975 points in 972 games.
Though Sundin remains with the Maple Leafs, they were active before the deadline, sending forwards Chad Kilger and Wade Belak to the Panthers and defenseman Hal Gill to Pittsburgh for future draft picks.
While the Maple Leafs seem to be rebuilding, they still hope Sundin's presence is enough to take them back to the playoffs. Toronto is 12th in the Eastern Conference with 65 points but just six behind Philadelphia and Buffalo, which are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot.
"Six points is not much," Kaberle said. "We need to get on a roll. It's wide open if we keep winning."
|Goaltender Mike Smith, right, made 24 saves in his debut for the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008, versus the Minnesota Wild in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Toronto has won three straight, one shy of its season high set from Nov. 29-Dec. 6. But the Maple Leafs are just 12-16-4 away from Toronto, and only the Lightning (25-31-7) and St. Louis have fewer road wins (10).
Toronto, though, has dominated Tampa Bay recently, sweeping the four-game series in 2006-07 and taking two of three meetings this season, including a 4-3 shootout victory at home on Jan. 1 in the most recent matchup.
The Maple Leafs look to win consecutive season series for the first time since taking both four-game sets from 2001-03, but that won't happen if they can't win at the St. Pete Times Forum, where they have dropped four of the last six contests.
The Lightning dropped their third straight at home on Wednesday, falling 3-2 to Minnesota. It was their fifth straight loss overall - their worst stretch since going 0-5-2 from Dec. 22-Jan. 5.
Mike Smith, Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen made their Lightning debuts after being obtained from Dallas on Tuesday. Smith made 24 saves and Halpern had a goal and an assist for Tampa Bay, which owns the worst record in the East.
"Probably one of the harder games I've ever played mentally," Smith said. "Everything that has gone on the last couple days. Fighting the nerves a little bit. For the most part, it felt pretty good. Disappointed in the outcome."
Smith has never faced the Maple Leafs. Halpern, meanwhile, has a goal and four assists in a four-game points streak against them. Jokinen failed to get a point in his only career game against Toronto in November 2007.