Sundin to the rescue

Mats Sundin's game-winning goal against the Caps was the 544th goal of his career. SUN MEDIA/Ernest...

Mats Sundin's game-winning goal against the Caps was the 544th goal of his career. SUN MEDIA/Ernest Doroszuk

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

Smiling from ear to ear, Mats Sundin acknowledged his selection as the game's first star by stepping on to the Air Canada Centre ice and waving to the appreciative crowd.

He was not gesturing goodbye by any means.

On a night in which Alexei Ponikarovsky was lost for a significant period of time with a shoulder injury, Sundin scored the deciding goal with just 29.2 seconds remaining in regulation, making Cliff Fletcher a winner in his first game as the Maple Leafs interim general manager.

Fletcher said he will meet with Sundin next week, presumably to chat about the captain's future. If it were up to Sundin, he would remain a Maple Leaf past the Feb. 26 trade deadline and lead his team into the playoffs, clamming up all those who are calling for him to waive the no-trade clause in his contract.

Should he keep being the hero like he was in last night's 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals, the veteran Swede might very well get his wish to stay put.

In the crowded Leafs dressing room after the game, Fletcher spotted Sundin and yelled out: "Great game Mats!"

Sundin's game-winner was the 544th goal of his career, moving him into a tie with the great Maurice (The Rocket) Richard in 24th place on the career goal-scoring list.

As a kid growing up in Sweden, Sundin did not know much about the legendary Rocket. But he quickly learned of Richard's popularity during his days as a Quebec Nordique, having seen the crowds in Montreal go bonkers whenever the late Richard was trotted out on to the ice during pre-game ceremonies.

"It's an honour, sure, although it's not the one I'm looking for," he said. "It does show just how long I've been in the league."

Sundin, like many of his teammates, took partial responsibility for the firing of John Ferguson on Tuesday.

"Whenever a change like that occurs, guys know they have to pull their socks up," he said. "But we've been playing pretty good the past week or so."

Putting a damper on the win -- Toronto's fourth in the past five games -- was the injury to Ponikarovsky, one coach Paul Maurice said likey will keep the big winger out of the lineup "for weeks as opposed to days."

Wallpapered into the boards by the Caps' Steve Eminger midway through the first period, Ponikarovsky lay on the ice for several minutes before being helped to the dressing room.

While Eminger was serving a boarding minor, Ponikarovsky was being diagnosed with a shoulder injury. The team said he will be re-evaluated today.

When Fletcher peered down from his perch in the Maple Leafs management suite at the Air Canada Centre, he could only dream that the blue-and-white one day will be as talent-rich as the visiting Washington Capitals.

Forget, for a moment, that the Leafs posted a hard-earned win over the Caps last night, snapping Washington's four-game winning streak.

Or that the two teams are separated by just one point in the logjammed eastern conference standings.

In his attempt to rebuild the Leafs, Fletcher must take note that the Caps have four outstanding young players who are all under 24. The marquee name in the group, of course, is Alexander Ovechkin, 22, but keep in mind that fellow forwards Alexander Semin, 23, Nicklas Backstrom, 19, and defenceman Mike Green, 22, are among the most promising kids in the league as well.

Ovechkin and Semin both scored pretty goals last night.

The two teams will meet again tonight in Washington before heading off for the all-star break. And if the Maple Leafs want to have success in the U.S. capital, it will be imperative that they control Washington's cache of young guns.


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