Mats sends message

MIKE ZEISBERGER, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- They easily are the shining stars of their respective teams, one a shaggy mopped 22-year-old Russian, the other a bald Swedish veteran of 37.

Washington Capitals stud Alexander Ovechkin represents the future of the sport, a kid who, with his best years still ahead of him, already is a Hart Trophy candidate.

But last night, Ovechkin had to acknowledge the continuing feats of the seemingly ageless Mats Sundin, the Maple Leafs captain who, like the Energizer Bunny, to keep going and going ...

"He's leading their team," Ovechkin said of Sundin, a man 15 years his senior. "He scores goals, he plays defence ... he's one of the best players (around)."

Sundin is a future Hall of Famer who will take time out this summer to determine if he still has the will to play another National Hockey League season.

This much is certain: He definitely still has the skill.

If Sundin somehow manages to carry his team into the post-season this spring, it arguably will be the greatest feat of his career. He would not admit it when the theory was posed to him after the Leafs' 3-2 victory over Ovechkin's Caps, but the proof would be there for all to see.

Having declined to waive the no-trade clause in his one-year, $5.5 million US pact exactly a week ago, the Leafs captain subsequently racked up eight points on Toronto's four-game trip, capping it off with a three-point performance against the Capitals last night at the Verizon Center.

When the Leafs hit the road seven days ago, they were seven points out of a playoff spot. Now, even after gaining seven of a possible eight points, they have managed to shave only two points off that total with just 15 games left.

"We understand just how tough the road ahead will be," Sundin said. "We've put ourselves in a difficult position. We're a long way from (the playoffs). We can't look any further than our next game.

"I will say this: I really like the way our young guys are playing. It is really fun to see."

So is watching Sundin these days. It is almost as if he is sending a message, through his outstanding performances on the ice, to the legions of critics who tore a strip off him for not agreeing to be traded.

"Hey," he seems to be saying to those who ripped him, "how do you like me now?"

Of course, Sundin never would use those exact words. Not in public, anyway. At the same time he did not deny the intense heat fired his way may have served as motivation.

"I don't think it's been a bad thing for me, although I'm not certain whether it's been a factor," he said. "Look, when you are not winning, everyone is under scrutiny. Obviously people are looking at me too."

Coach Paul Maurice certainly is. And he likes what he sees.

"I think that this year Mats is playing better than last year," the beleaguered Leafs bench boss said. "He just wasn't getting breaks around the net at times.

"He's a special player. But he pays for it too. He's on the bike probably more than anyone on the team."

Nik Antropov, with his career-high 23rd goal of the season, and Alex Steen, with his 13th, joined Sundin in beating Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig.

"(Mats) has been playing phenomenal," said Steen, who has lined up on the captain's wing the past few weeks. "Just the play on my goal there -- you kind of know that he knows where you are and that you are going to get the puck.

"All the younger guys including myself can really learn a lot from just watching Mats."

Ovechkin, the NHL's top sniper, wasn't too shabby either, scoring his league-leading 49th goal and adding an assist for good measure.

But it just wasn't enough to outdo the exploits of the old guy in blue and white who refuses to go away.

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REPLAY

TURNING POINT

By converting a perfect feed from Mats Sundin at 5:42 of the third period, Alex Steen gave the Maple Leafs a 3-1 cushion they would desperately need against the high-flying Capitals.

KEEP IT DOWN

Maple Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe is having difficulty keeping the puck in the rink these days.

McCabe has taken delay-of-game penalties in back-to-back games for hoisting it over the glass, the most recent occurance coming in the second period last night.

PREMATURE JOY

Defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo already was starting to celebrate a goal when he beat Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig in the second period.

Just one problem: He didn't miss the crossbar.

QUOTE, UNQUOTE

"Hopefully I can learn (Russian). In the meantime, (Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin) should know that they can dump it in and I'll get it back."

-- Washington's recently acquired forward Matt Cooke, discussing his new linemates


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