Mats deep-sixes Cats

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:27 AM ET

Mats Sundin would not let his buddy Joe Nieuwendyk get the best of him.

With former captains Doug Gilmour and Darryl Sittler among the capacity crowd at the Air Canada Centre, the veteran Swede electrified the huge throng by pouring in four goals against the Florida Panthers last night.

Not even Nieuwendyk's own hat trick for the visitors could out-do the heroics of Sundin, who kept the Leafs' faint playoff hopes alive by leading Toronto to a 6-5 overtime victory.

"Sometimes its funny in sports, and that's why you love them," said Sundin, who chipped in a pair of assists to cap off a six-point evening.

"I've probably played better hockey on many nights."

Better hockey?

Is that possible?

There was the night back in his younger days when he racked up a career-high five goals and two assists for the Nordiques during a game against the Hartford Whalers.

Sundin has played a lot of hockey since that memorable night back on March 5, 1992.

But in terms of importance to his team, last night's performance has to rank among his personal best.

With Sundin carrying his team to victory, the Leafs moved to within five points of the eighth-place Tampa Bay Lightning, who were being thumped 6-2 by the Atlanta Thrashers.

The Leafs, who have four games remaining, trail the ninth-place Thrashers by one point.

Do you believe in miracles?

Obviously, Sundin does.

And he ensured that the dream remained alive when he set up Tomas Kaberle with a perfect feed for the winning power play goal at 4:49 of overtime.

"Sure, we were aware of what was going on in the Tampa game," Kaberle said. "Their score was right beside the time on the clock so you couldn't help but notice. We can't worry about that though, we just have to keep winning our own games."

Sundin captained the Swedes to a gold medal at the Winter Games in Turin back in February. Since returning from Italy, Sundin has 15 goals in 21 games.

THE BEST

"I think he has been the best player in the league since the Olympics," Kaberle said.

"He really led us out there."

Sundin turned in the first four-goal game by a Maple Leaf at the Air Canada Centre since diminutive Steve Sullivan accomplished the feat back on April 10, 1999, against the Panthers.

On the other side of the ice, Nieuwendyk, who was nursing an injured back during the Panthers earlier visit to Toronto back on Oct. 31, racked up a season-high four points.

On any other evening, he would have been the game's first star.

But that honour easily had to go to Sundin, who registered his third hat-trick as a Leaf and seventh of his career.

Nik Antropov also scored for the Leafs, who meet the New York Islanders on Long Island tomorrow night still fighting for their post-season lives.

"We still have a chance," Darcy Tucker said.

"That's all we can ask for."

Olli Jokinen and Jay Bouwmeester had the other Florida goals.


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