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Michael Traikos, National Post
Published: Monday, October 16, 2006

With his 500th goal in the books, the Leafs' workhorse captain sets his sights on guiding his team to the post-season and hockey's greatest prize

Long after he shot the puck that gave him 500 career goals and his team a 5-4 overtime win against the Calgary Flames, Mats Sundin stood by himself on the ice.

The game was over. The rest of the Maple Leafs were already taking off their equipment in the dressing room. But the Toronto captain was not going anywhere.

With the crowd still cheering, Sundin tapped his stick on the ice and then, taking a cue from professional wrestling, pointed the curved blade towards the coloured seats that filled the Air Canada Centre.

It was a rare gesture for the laid-back Swede. He would later say that he was caught up in the moment. That, with his younger brother in the stands and his playing career on the downswing, the 35-year-old wanted to thank his adoring fans for being a part of his unique accomplishment.

"I realized the applause and the people standing up in the rink for me," he said of lingering on the ice after scoring three goals, adding an assist and being named the game's first star. "It was just an appreciation for that. It doesn't happen too often. I've been here for many years and it was just a special moment for me."

Sundin, the 35th player -- and third European -- to score 500 goals, has potted 73% of them (365) as a Leaf. He is tied for second with Dave Keon on the franchise's all-time list, and trails only Darryl Sittler, by 24 goals.

While Sundin is likely to pass Sittler this season, he is more focused on the task of helping the Leafs to return to the post-season.

Before the regular season began, the thinking was that the Leafs would miss the playoffs for the second straight year. And that Sundin, who has played nine seasons in Toronto without a championship, would be missing from the lineup after the February trade deadline.

To everyone's surprise, the Leafs are winning, and Sundin, who sold his Toronto house this summer, may have found a permanent home under new head coach Paul Maurice.

"I've played here for many years," he said. "We realize that we really do have the best fans. The team hasn't won a championship since '67. But they come to the games and support our team and they don't want anything else but for us to do well. There's not enough words to say ... they're the reason we're playing."

To say that Sundin looks happy these days is an understatement. For the first time in recent memory, he is being treated as the star centre that he is. He gets the most ice time of any forward, he is the trigger-man on all offensive plays, and he has been given what appear to be legitimate first-line wingers in Kyle Wellwood and Darcy Tucker. Together, the trio has combined for 10 goals and 23 assists in six games.

And with Sundin (four goals and eight points) leading the way, the Leafs (3-1-2) are third in the Eastern Conference.

"He's the best all-around centre in the game," said Wellwood, who is tied with Sundin with a team-leading eight points. "He'd be a first-overall pick in any league, just for all the stuff he does on and off the ice. All the responsibility he carries for this franchise."

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