TORONTO -- The captain came back to face the ship that for so long he had steered through the often rough waters of hockey life in Toronto.
And for those inclined to see him as a villain, Mats Sundin left town last night as an even bigger one.
In his first and likely only return to Toronto as an NHL player after his 13-season tenure with the Leafs ended last spring, Sundin used a nifty deke and backhand to the top corner to give the Vancouver Canucks a 3-2 shootout win at the Air Canada Centre.
It was enough to earn the Big Swede first-star honours and his second standing ovation of the night as he returned to the ice for a victory lap.
"There's been a buildup for this game," Sundin said. "All the battles and everything we've gone through over the last 13 years with the Leafs, so many ups and downs and disappointments and happiness. A lot of feelings came to mind on the ice.
"The ovation from the fans was very special. I'll remember that the rest of my life."
For all the drama surrounding Sundin's return in enemy regalia, he sure delivered in the most dramatic way in front of 19,504 at the ACC.
But during an at-times emotional night, it was his former team that seized the moment for much of the game, one of the more entertaining of the season for the home crowd.
"I thought we played a good game," said Toronto coach Ron Wilson. "It was high intensity with good end-to-end action."
After killing off a four-minute power play late in the third period, the Leafs looked to be on their way to a mild upset over the surging Canucks, who were riding a three-game winning streak heading into the game.
35 SAVES FOR TOSKALA
But not long after Dominic Moore finished serving a high-sticking penalty, the Canucks tied it at 2-2 at the 16:03 mark of the third on a deflection that Leaf goaltender Vesa Toskala had no chance of saving.
The loss spoiled a fine effort from the oft-criticized netminder, who seemed refreshed after getting the better part of the week off and finished with 35 saves.
The only other regulation-time goal to beat him came in the second period when Sami Salo's shot changed direction after bouncing off Leafs forward Nik Hagman.
A rejuvenated Jason Blake, who is a different player than he was when the Big Swede was wearing the "C" here, scored his 22nd of the season to open the scoring 12:26 into the first.
Blake, who already has seven more goals than he did in his entire first season as a Leaf, deflected a point shot by Pavel Kubina for the power-play goal.
That lead held up until the 9:49 mark of the second period, when Salo's power-play goal tied it. The Leafs restored their one-goal lead on Matt Stajan's short-handed marker at 16:11 of the second period, just the second time this season the Leafs have scored while a man short.
For the most part, Sundin was nowhere near the presence he most often was when his base of operations was the home bench at the ACC. Playing on a line with Ryan Kesler and Pavol Demitra, Sundin also saw time anchoring the point on the power play.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault did play to the crowd by putting Sundin in the starting lineup. The emotional highlight, however, came during an extended timeout in the first period when a tribute to Sundin was aired on the video board.
The Leafs' record in one-goal games fell to 7-16, and they have now dropped five in a row at home.