Mats something to see

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:17 AM ET

If the house is listing, add a pillar.

It's really that easy, when the pillar is Mats Sundin.

Playing his first full regular- season NHL game since the spring of 2004, Sundin again proved why he is who he is as the Leafs downed the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-3 last night.

In 20 minutes of ice time, Sundin registered a goal and an assist.

In the first period, he set up Jeff O'Neill with a clever pass through the skates of a Tampa Bay defender.

O'Neill hadn't scored in nine games. Inspired, O'Neill later made a super effort to find Sundin for the captain's first goal of the season.

"Best player in the league," O'Neill said. "It's an honour to play with him."

Well, yes and no. Sundin has broken into the National Hockey League's top 10 scorers only twice over the past decade. His best finish was fourth. He is nowhere near the most prolific player in the league.

But he is one of those rare players who scores consistently big, dramatic goals, a player who works with an obvious integrity. The Swedish captain represents the best in us.

There are certain things you can count on with Mats Sundin. He will cut in from the left wing if given half a chance. He will win more than his share of faceoffs (16 of 26 last night) and he will spread the credit around the room.

"I've been around long enough that the win is what you were looking for," he said. "You make sure that we're winning as a group."

Now 34, he is on the back nine of a 15-year NHL career and yet players whose skills surpass even his are less pivotal players on their teams. The braying about poor playoffs has long since ended. Sundin's standing is unchallenged.

Last night, he again showed why by furnishing another in what has been an 11-year string of moments that reinforce his everyday greatness.

In the month that Sundin was lost to the Leafs because of an injury to his left eye, they were at times dominating and terrible, undisciplined and poised.

They were exactly where they deserved to be, a game over .500 but, at this rate at least, destined to struggle to make the post-season. It's early of course, but these are strange happenings for a public that has become inured to post-season ticket buying.

The captain delivered in a game the Leafs needed to restore their flagging season. They had lost three of four.

The Leafs have been carried as much by the fine play of young players Matt Stajan and Alex Steen as the cadre of big-name veterans, Eric Lindros, O'Neill and Jason Allison. Adding Sundin brought the expected bonus of revitalizing O'Neill. It's Swedish math.

"That's the thing about Mats," defenceman Bryan McCabe said. "That's the mark of a great player. Jeff made a couple of great second-effort plays. He made a great play to score and he set Mats up on the other."

"He's a premier player and in my mind, he's still improving," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said. "At training camp he had extra jump."

Sundin feels revived, first by the year away from the game via the lockout, but also by the rule application to free players like him.

"I'm definitely excited about playing, which is the most important thing," he said.

"Hockey is a sport where you need that drive and have the heart into it. The way it feels right now, it's a lot of fun to play it."

Just another Saturday night for Mats Sundin, who still can't see perfectly with his left eye. The Leafs, though, suddenly are in dramatically clearer focus.


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