Big Mats is in charge

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:32 PM ET

 The end was just over the horizon, you could feel it.

 The Maple Leafs had made a series where none existed Wednesday but now, early in Game 4, things felt profoundly different.

  The Philadelphia Flyers, the opportunistic, physically imposing, positionally advantaged team that captured Games 1 and 2, were back for Game 4. They outplayed the Leafs from the first shift on, and the only ice the Leafs could garner wasn't worth having.

 "We did look tight," Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn said.

 "We looked like we were afraid to win."

 When Bryan McCabe misplayed a puck on the kind of play he would ordinarily make in his sleep, Simon Gagne ripped it past Ed Belfour just eight minutes in.

 This was the pattern the Flyers had established in winning six of eight playoff games and the thought took hold: Maybe the Leafs had come far enough.

 "That first goal could have been really decisive," Quinn said.

 And then, as it always does, the puck returned to Mats Sundin's stick. Sundin's hard centering pass somehow richocheted off Marcus Ragnarsson and through the legs of Flyers goalie Robert Esche.

 Everything changed.

 "Yeah, it was unfortunate how they had the momentum through the first 10 minutes," Sundin said. "But the shot went off Ragnarsson's glove or whatever it was. The momentum shifted."

 Great to be lucky.

 Lucky to be great. That's Mats Sundin all right.

 The journey to Sundin's second goal began at the Leafs' side of centre, included a dance around Vladimir Malakhov, a hard left into the slot and a backhand that trickled through Esche's pads.

 That was the moment you were reminded of the fundamental truth about the Maple Leafs. They have a great goalie, four lines, three suddenly serviceable defensive pairings but they begin and end with Mats Sundin, their 33-year old captain.

 "He shows up," Belfour said. "He shows up every game."

 This series turned the moment Sundin, assumed lost for several more nights because of what is understood to be a groin injury, skated onto the ice in Philadelphia for Game 2. It turned more dramatically last night, with Sundin's first two goals of the second round.

 That the Leafs have been lucky was beyond dispute. Sundin's first marker was the mother of all bounces. Two of the Leafs' four goals in Game 3, Alexei Ponikarovski's deflection and Darcy Tucker's bank shot off a Philadelphia defenceman's skate and the post, have come off sweet bounces.

 Another bounce led to the Leafs' third goal. The luckless Ragnarsson let a puck get past him at the Leafs' blue line.

 LOOSE PUCK

 Tie Domi, adding to what already has been a long list of standout games, pounced on the loose puck and Ragnarsson had to haul him down. Near the end of the penalty, Tucker managed a clever deflection off a point shot and the Leafs were up 3-1.

 But the elements, so amply in evidence in the Flyers' first two wins, have vaporized. Esche's veneer of invincibility has been shattered. He looks to be exactly who he is -- a goalie with no playoff experience. Belfour once again looks cast-iron.

 Many of the Leafs, too, have returned to earth. Alexander Mogilny, spectacular in Game 3, looked nonchalant and took a careless boarding penalty late in the game when he hit Tony Amonte from behind.

 Wade Belak, a revelation his first night of the series, held his own, but Wednesday might have been the game of his life. The rest of the Loogan Line, Nik Antropov and Ponikarovsky, battled but did little more than hold its own.

 The difference, as it has been in the 10 seasons he has toiled as the Maple Leafs' most enduring star, was the greatness of Mats Sundin.

 Lucky guy. Lucky team.


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