Leading by example

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Having finished a brief conversation with his buddy Joe Nieuwendyk about 20 minutes after the game had ended, Mats Sundin gave his former teammate, now a Florida Panthers executive, a quick hug.

Those few loyal members of Leafs Nation who still harbour hopes a playoff berth would love to show their appreciation for the Toronto captain in the same way.

Ripped in some circles for not waiving his no-trade clause, Sundin has led his team to a pair of victories since giving the thumbs-down to any kind of deal on Sunday night in Ottawa.

After scoring the opening goal in a 5-0 blowout of the Ottawa Senators on Monday, Sundin last night carried the Leafs on his broad Swedish shoulders to a dramatic 4-3 shootout victory over the Panthers last night, racking up two third-period goals and an assist. The Leafs would not have registered even a point, let alone a win, had the captain not tied the game with 68 seconds left and goalie Vesa Toskala on the bench for an extra attacker.

While the Leafs' recent run of five wins in six outings might inject some adrenalin into their moribund fan base, don't get too excited. With the team sitting in 12th spot in the Eastern Conference, six points out of a playoff spot, making up all that ground with just 18 games to go remains a tall order.

Besides, as interim general manager Cliff Fletcher proclaimed this week, whether the Leafs make or miss the post-season will not alter the house-cleaning plans that will take place this summer.

Neither Fletcher's words, nor the recent criticism aimed his way, have siphoned the fight out of Sundin, which is important for the development of this organization. With three Marlies in the lineup -- Kris Newbury, Jeremy Williams and Robbie Earl -- and another, Alex Foster, watching in street clothes, the captain's credo of leading by example has never been more important.

On the Leafs' first goal, Sundin battled the puck away from a Panthers defender behind the Florida net, then set up Williams with a perfect centring feed.

Sundin is making $5.5 million US this year. He doesn't need the money. He doesn't even know if he will play after this season. His team just traded away three familiar faces in the dressing room in Wade Belak, Chad Kilger and Hal Gill. If ever there was an environment in which to dog it, this is it.

But that's not what Sundin is doing. And if he does decide not to come back after the season, maybe his refusal to give up while he is out on the ice will be absorbed by some of the kids.

"The last three weeks we've been playing a lot better," Sundin said. "And our young guys have played really well."

Sundin laughed when it was noted that Williams has scored three goals in his three NHL games, which have come in, fittingly, a three-year span.

"It was a great goal," Sundin said. "He'll get 100 goals in 100 games at this rate."

Williams understands his modest goal-scoring streak cannot mask the warts that still exist in his game.

"It's frustrating and disappointing," he said of his inability to stick with the parent club in the past. "But there are many parts of my game I've needed to work on.

"I know this is an audition and I plan to make the most of it."

Williams makes a good point. All hands are under scrutiny right now, including Paul Maurice and his coaching staff, as Fletcher studies the best way to move the franchise forward.

"Right now, everyone is accountable," Fletcher said. "Management. Coaches. Players. We must make this a better team by the time training camp starts in October."

The Leafs won this one thanks to Toskala's 37-save performance and Tomas Kaberle's game winner, the only goal in the shootout. Yet Kaberle summed up the feelings of the entire team when asked about his captain.

"He is such a great leader," Kaberle said. "When he leads, we follow."

Sundin could not get a better compliment than that.


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