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Sundin, Clark confident Maple Leafs will turn things around

Former captains say Toronto, winless in five straight, has character to respond

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- This city's 115th annual Santa Claus Parade on Sunday passed within a few blocks of Scotiabank Arena. If you listened closely enough, you might have heard the crowd's singalong of that holiday chestnut, "All I Want For Christmas Is a Few Leafs Wins."

Two former Toronto Maple Leafs captains have endured slumps between winning streaks, and Mats Sundin and Wendel Clark are taking the "it's a marathon, not a sprint" approach to the struggles of their former team, which is winless in its past five games.

The Maple Leafs haven't won since Nov. 7, a 2-1 overtime victory here against the Vegas Golden Knights. Since then, they have dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to the Philadelphia Flyers, then lost in regulation to the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders, Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the most recent a 6-1 road loss on Saturday. They've been outscored 23-13 in the five games.

"Toronto has a different situation than most other [NHL markets]," said Sundin, the Maple Leafs captain for a decade (1997-98 through 2007-08) and a captain in the annual Haggar Hockey Hall of Fame Legends Game on Sunday.

The two former Maple Leafs were teammates again, skating for Team Sundin against a team captained by Detroit Red Wings icon Nicklas Lidstrom.

"It's a lot of pressure to play here," Sundin said. "It's extra attention for management, for players. All teams go through struggles every year, but you get very exposed in a market like Toronto. You have to come through it. If you have character guys that Toronto has, you'll find a way. You go through tough spurts in a season, on all teams, it doesn't matter where you are. It's a little bit tougher in markets like Toronto and Montreal, I'm sure."

Sundin said he likes what the Maple Leafs are building, and that he doesn't think it's a bad thing that they will be on the road for their next five games, beginning Tuesday at Vegas (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+, ATTSN-RM, TSN4, NHL.TV).

Getting away from some of the pressures of home, according to Sundin, can often help a team find its focus and its collective legs.

"I'm sure they all feel it's pretty nice to be out on the road," he said. "Many times, you go on a long road trip and it's actually a great way to get a team together and do things together as a group, things off the ice, and bond a little bit more to get back on track.

"To me, [the Maple Leafs] are one of the best young teams in the National Hockey League. But you're going to have ups and downs over a season. Sometimes, the patience is a lot better in a market like Tampa or the Florida Panthers than when you're playing for the Maple Leafs or Canadiens."

Clark, who in 1992-93 and 1993-94 sparked the Maple Leafs to three-round Stanley Cup Playoff runs, figures there's a lot to be said in times of slumps to just simplifying the game, to stop trying to do too much.

"Whatever system the coach has, you simplify everything and come together," Clark said. "You have to solve the problem within the dressing room. Outside the walls, there's nobody solving the problem. The tighter your team gets, when you're a pretty good hockey team, which they are, the guys in the room will figure it out and pull out of this."

Clark, a hugely popular player in Toronto who was nicknamed "Captain Crunch" for his rugged, physical style, remains a familiar face here. He plays about 10 games a year "if I can and if the body is letting me be upright" as a member of the busy Maple Leafs alumni group, travelling throughout Ontario and beyond to raise money for charity and awareness of good causes.

And as that cornerstone figure, Clark says, "You hear it all the time wherever you go," when Toronto is struggling.

"Everybody can solve this and solve that," he said. "Everybody's got all the answers, that's what makes it a great country to be playing the game in. Everybody does care and everybody is going to give their two cents. Everybody in Canada has played a little hockey growing up so everybody's got an idea. That's what makes it fun.

"It's tough sometimes when you're losing, but there's no place better [than Toronto] when you're winning."

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