Leafs, Sundin have hope

MIKE ZEISBERGER, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 12:40 PM ET

BUFFALO -- As a wide-eyed kid growing up in Sweden, Anton Stralman savoured the hockey cards he possessed of fellow countryman Mats Sundin.

Since that time, Stralman's admiration has only grown for the Toronto captain.

On a night he scored his first National Hockey League goal in what was pretty much a do-or-die game for his Maple Leafs, Stralman, 21, stood in the Toronto dressing room spouting the leadership virtues of Sundin, 37.

About 10 hours earlier, Sundin had put himself through a gruelling on-ice workout at the HSBC Arena, his toughest to date since suffering a slight tear of a groin muscle on March 12 in Philadelphia.

When the session was done, Sundin told waiting reporters that he had not ruled out playing against the Ottawa Senators tonight at Scotiabank Place, despite vibes earlier in the week from coach Paul Maurice that the captain likely would not be available to face the Leafs' provincial rival.

It is obvious, once again, that the Maple Leaf captain will not give up.

And neither, it seems, do his teammates, who rallied for a huge 4-1 win over the host Buffalo Sabres.

"He's amazing," Stralman, the game's third star with a goal and an assist, said of Sundin. "Even when he's hurt, he just wills himself to try and play.

"It's impressive to see him always working out so hard even though he's an old guy."

As Stralman suggested, Sundin's never-say-die attitude has trickled down to the remainder of the team.

The Leafs have pulled to within five points of the eighth-place team in the Eastern Conference -- now the Boston Bruins -- with seven games remaining. The Leafs and Bruins face off in a home-and-home series next week, meeting in Toronto on Tuesday and Boston on Thursday.

With Sundin, Nik Antropov (knee), Carlo Colaiacovo (groin) and Boyd Devereaux (knee) all out of the lineup, the Leafs still managed to hold off the Sabres thanks, in part, to first star Vesa Toskala, who turned aside 35 Buffalo shots.

Stralman delivered the key blow, giving the Leafs a 3-1 lead at 8:27 of the second period. In this, his 43rd game as an NHLer, he finally knew the joys of scoring in this league.

"It's a big weight off me," he said. "I'm supposed to be an offensive defenceman so you like to score."

As for Sundin, he vows to be back as soon as possible.

"First off, we're still in the playoff race and the guys played great," Sundin said. "Secondly, we're all professionals here. You go out and play hard, no matter what the standings are. Period."

It's a creed to which the rest of the Leafs are believing.

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REPLAY

TURNING POINT

Anton Stralman's first NHL goal, midway through the second period, gave the Leafs some breathing room in this tight game, putting the visitors up 3-1. Stralman scored 10 times for Timra of the Swedish elite league in 2006-07.

STARS OF GAME

By holding the Sabres' high-octane power play to just one goal in eight chances, the Leafs penalty killers get the nod here. Their best penalty killer, of course, was goaltender Vesa Toskala, who made 35 saves in the game.

IRON MAN

Toskala tied a Leafs franchise record by starting his 26th consecutive game last night. Ironically he equalled the feat held by his backup, Andrew Raycroft, who established the mark last season. Raycroft has not started a game since Jan. 20.

TRAINER'S ROOM

The Maple Leafs are hoping to have forward Boyd Devereaux (knee) back in the lineup tonight in Ottawa against the Senators. The Sabres, meanwhile, will be without forward Tim Connolly for the rest of the season. He will undergo hip surgery in Colorado on Monday.


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