You could see it, feel it â€“ even hear it. It was the complete overtime game-winning-goal experience, and in the playoffs, no less. Their first round opponent was the Ottawa Senators. It was here, in this newfound playoff rivalry, that the Battle of Ontario was truly born. And by the searing power of our Captainâ€™s blade, it roared off to a memorable start.
Game 1. The Senators were second seed in the standings and the apparent favourites, but the Leafs â€“ on the back of their oft-underappreciated gem of a leader â€“ fought out a tight 0-0 tie into overtime. Steve Thomas executed a fairly textbook give-and-go at the Ottawa blueline. As he dished the puck to his Swedish linemate and dashed toward the net, Thomas couldnâ€™t see Sundin step forward and take what has to be one of the most interesting shots Iâ€™ve ever seenâ€¦
â€¦the stutter-step slapshot.
Sundin literally paused at the top of his recoil, a classic double-clutch. As if some miniscule error in his technique was detected by his superior skill, enough to make his brain override the physically intense moment and say, â€œNo. Adjust slightly. Aim it here.â€
Mats did. The perfect slapshot rang off the post and in, igniting a not-surprisingly Leaf-heavy Ottawa crowd and propelling his team toward what would end up being a four game sweep of their provincial rivals. That first overtime was broken with, literally, a ringing endorsement of what would become established convention over the next several years: Torontoâ€™s dominance of Ottawa in the playoffs.
I was born in 1985. The Leafsâ€™ playoff runs in the early 21st century are amongst not just the best, but frankly, the only pleasant memories I have of the team (I blame a lot of subconscious repression re: something that happened around 1993 for that). 2001 was one such year. The Leafs squeaked into the playoffs, 7th seed, by a win â€“ with 90 points. 90 points got you into the playoffs in the East back then!
Like many a Leaf fan, Iâ€™m not old enough to know true success as it comes dressed in Blue and White. All I have are the rousing, unconnected moments when, even if only briefly, we displayed the kind of heart and talent that really made you feel like you were watching champions. He receives less credit than he deserves solely because his individual efforts never brought this city a Stanley Cup â€“ but I can think of no more committed, inspiring example of leadership through adversity (sometimes even the â€œmoronically pouring down from upstairsâ€ kind of adversity) than the good man who wore the unluckiest number in Leaf history.
Thank you, Mats.