Is Mats Sundin's decade-long search for regular linemates finally at an end?
Since Jan. 20, 1995, the night he made his debut as a Maple Leaf with Mike Ridley and Mike Gartner, four Toronto coaches have shuffled entire decks of forwards or wrote names on dinner napkins, looking for something that would stick. But except for a few weeks of success here and there, the quest for a full-time compatible trio remains unfulfilled.
Either the right mix couldn't be found to keep up with the team's leading scorer, or healthy bodies were in short supply. Current coach Pat Quinn's desire to spread the scoring wealth on a four-line basis often means Sundin's exposure to other elite Leafs forwards is limited to power-play duty.
The summer signings of Eric Lindros and Jason Allison led to speculation that Sundin would work with a Land Of The Giants cast. But Quinn opened the schedule with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov, two of the largest, but least-productive Leafs based on 2003-04. Then Sundin missed a month with an eye injury.
But half the equation was settled last month when Sundin was paired with countryman Alex Steen, a stab at Swedish chemistry that had never quite jelled with Fredrik Modin, Jonas Hoglund or Mikael Renberg. Jeff O'Neill began on the right side when Sundin returned, but his inconsistent play of late led Quinn to plug Darcy Tucker into the line, just in time for a five goals in five games streak by the latter.
"It looks all right," Sundin said of the line after it clicked again for a nice opening goal on Saturday in an eventual 5-4 loss to San Jose. "I know it's an adjustment for Alex, coming to this kind of a schedule, playing 82 games-plus when he's been used to 40 or 50 (in Sweden).
"Darcy, obviously has played really well this year. He has the ability to find the holes and score. The puck seems to follow him and he's a hard-working guy. Usually, good things happen to you."
Tucker has not been breaking ranks to go for the big hit as much, which sometimes proved a distraction.
"He's got that edge to his game which we all love," Sundin said. "There is time to take those hits and time to watch your position. He's done a better job of that."
Steen insisted "we have a few notches to go yet" and Tucker concurred.
"I've kind of gone as the team has gone, played well for some periods of time and not so well for others," Tucker said.
Steen's ability to zip back on defensive coverage makes him an asset.
"From a coaching standpoint, you really value a guy who can make the transition at both ends of the job," Quinn said. "You hope all your team can do that."