The stars were lining up perfectly for the Maple Leafs tonight, with Mats Sundin and Ed Belfour set to break significant personal milestones and the San Jose Sharks staggering into town in last place in the Pacific Division.
But then the Sharks shook up the hockey world Wednesday, acquiring Joe Thornton from Boston and snapping the Leafs out of any overconfidence they developed this week with two wins and a one-goal loss in a three-game road trip.
Tonight also marks Toronto's first test against Western Conference clubs, beginning four straight versus the Pacificos at the Air Canada Centre. Thornton, who is from St. Thomas, will want to impress old and new friends, while tonight will mark ex-Leaf Alyn McCauley's first game back here since the Owen Nolan trade in the winter of 2003.
"This might have been our toughest stretch of the season and now it's continuing this weekend," Sundin said yesterday after practice at the ACC. "But we should be pleased. We played good enough to win in Tampa (a 2-1 loss that would've swept the Southeast swing and created a four-game winning streak)."
Thornton and Sundin are from the same agency stable, International Management Group. Thornton's breakthrough year with the Boston Bruins came the same season the Leafs moved from the Western Conference to the Northeast Division and a series of head-to-head clashes between the two captains has ensued. But after tonight's lone Leafs-Sharks encounter of the season, it could be a few years before they meet again.
"Joe had started to prove himself as a superstar in this league, the kind of guy any franchise wanted," Sundin said. "With his age (26), I'm very surprised he was traded. But that's the NHL. Joe's a guy with a lot of class and I'm sure he'll do very well in San Jose."
Leafs coach Pat Quinn usually prefers putting Sundin's line head-to-head with Thornton. The latter will be trying to stop Sundin's inevitable passing of Swedish teammate Borje Salming on the Leafs' career points list. Both have 768.
Sundin was asked about the first time he met Salming, during a chilly training camp day for the national team as it prepared for the 1991 Canada Cup.
"We were doing an off-ice workout before practice," Sundin recalled. "Borje had his shirt off and was running, but all of these 20-year-olds didn't want to take theirs off. He was 40 at the time and still in pretty good shape."
Sundin could move into third in Leaf career scoring with a point. He debuted in blue and white on Jan. 20, 1995, with an assist against the Los Angeles Kings, on a line with Mike Gartner and Mike Ridley.
Tonight could also see Belfour make some history, passing Terry Sawchuk for second overall with NHL career win No. 448. Belfour was excused from practice yesterday, but back-up Mikael Tellqvist, who recorded his first NHL shutout Thursday night, paid him plenty of respect for the coming feat.
"Just by watching him work, I want to be able to move like him when I'm 40," the 26-year-old Tellqvist said. "He moves like a 20-year-old sometimes and that's the key."