Eye injury only latest obstacle for Sundin to overcome

TORONTO -- Midway through the first period Saturday, a video montage of Mats Sundin highlights played on the scoreboard above the Air Canada Centre ice accompanied by the tag line 'Go Mats Go,' prompting a warm round of applause for the Leafs captain.

Three minutes later, Sundin replied in kind, setting up Jeff O'Neill for Toronto's first goal -- and Sundin's 1,090th career point -- against Tampa Bay. Later, he would add the Leafs' third goal en route to a 5-3 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions. It was the 466th of his career.

After playing only 2:53 this season before a puck shattered the orbital bone surrounding his left eye, the big Swede returned to action Saturday night, for all intents and purposes starting his season anew.

"I haven't played a league game in a long, long time," Sundin said. "It felt better than I thought it was going to."

"It's always nice to score," he added. "I've been around long enough, you know the win is what you're looking for and make sure that we're winning as a group and making the playoffs and all that. There's bigger goals ahead. But it's always fun to score goals. You never get sick of that."

In many ways, Saturday's return marks the beginning of a new chapter in what has thus far been a sterling career.

During the lockout Sundin was ghost-like, rarely seen in the city, rarely heard from. He did not play at all while the league was shut down, even though most of his countrymen took advantage of the lockout to play in their hometowns in the Swedish elite league. He did not play in the World Championships in spite of a long history of service to his country. Instead he shut himself off from the game, traveling and using the time to heal a body battered through 15 long NHL seasons.

And so he returned, the prodigal captain, once again bearing the weight of high expectations on his broad shoulders.

It wasn't always so. For a long time Sundin was treated with suspicion by many in Leaf Nation. He arrived in a trade that saw favorite son Wendel Clark shipped off to Quebec in June 1984. If that wasn't bad enough in some people's minds, the Leafs named Sundin captain in 1997, the only non-Canadian to be so honored.

In Sundin's first season as captain the Leafs failed to make the playoff. The next spring, under new coach Pat Quinn, the Leafs surprised many by advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. It started a string of six straight playoff appearances by the Leafs and what has become an annual rite known as the leadership query. Each year between the end of the regular season and the playoffs some hapless reporter will invariably ask Quinn whether he thinks Sundin has arrived as a leader, whether he has exorcised the ghosts of Clark and Doug Gilmour and every other Leafs captain back to Hap Day. And each year Quinn will blow an exasperated gasket at such a preposterous notion.

Even now Quinn bristles when asked whether Sundin can be a dominating player in the way that older players like Rod Brind'Amour, Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya have thrived in the new NHL.

"He has been [dominating]," Quinn said testily. "What's your definition of a dominating player?"

Still, Quinn acknowledged there is no reason Sundin can't meet or exceed his previous productivity.

"I expect him to be as good a player and maybe better than he has been," Quinn said. "He's a guy that was constantly fouled. That was the only way people could stop him. Because of his skating abilities and his strength, he should enjoy more offensive success."

For much of his time in Toronto, Sundin has logged significantly less ice time than other elite players and has often been saddled with marginal linemates as Quinn prefers to ice a balanced attack, rolling three and four lines as opposed to loading up his offensive units.

Saturday, for instance, he played with mucker Alexei Ponikarovsky, who has 15 career goals.

Not once has Sundin complained, at least not publicly.

Although his offensive numbers suggest a place in the Hall of Fame awaits, notching 1,091 points in 1,088 games, including 70 game-winning goals as a Leaf, Sundin has also become an accomplished two-way player. He regularly kills penalties and is a constant threat to score while the Leafs are shorthanded. He began the season 16th in scoring among active NHL players.

Off the ice he's had to deal with dressing cliques, malcontents and whiners. In a city where there are four daily newspapers, three all-sports TV channels and a digital channel devoted entirely to the Leafs, he's delivered tens of thousands of quotes and sound bytes to Leaf Nation.

But a funny thing has happened to Sundin during his tenure in Toronto. His personality and that of the team have morphed into one. That is to say, in spite of successes on many levels, when all is said and done there remains every season a feeling of disappointment, a yearning for something more, something better.

Just as Steve Yzerman and Mike Modano were judged harshly until they led their teams to Stanley Cups, there will always be a missing piece to the Sundin puzzle until he can do the same.

Twice during the past six years the Leafs have been bested by the Devils with center Bobby Holik effectively neutralizing Sundin. In 2001 the Leafs led the Devils 3-2 in a second-round series but lost Game 6 at home and were pummeled in Game 7.

During the 2002 run to the conference finals, Sundin played in only eight of 20 postseason games. The Leafs went off the rails against a surprising Carolina Hurricanes team in the conference finals only after Sundin returned to the lineup.

During the 2004 playoffs Sundin averaged a point a game through nine games, although he missed four games due to injury. In losing to Philadelphia in the second round, it was Flyers captain Keith Primeau who dominated the series.

Sundin certainly doesn't shoulder the blame for losses that have extended the Leafs' Stanley Cup drought to 38 years. Spotty goaltending and a sub-par defense have been major factors. But the world isn't necessarily a fair place and these disappointments are as much Sundin's legacy in Toronto as the game-winning goals and strong, quiet leadership in the dressing room.

Still, there remains about Sundin a quiet determination that his legacy might be different.

"I'm definitely excited about playing, which is the most important thing," he said. "I think hockey's such a sport where you need to have that drive and really have the heart into it. And the way it feels right now, it's a lot of fun to play. I feel fortunate to be part of this franchise and my only goal is to try and be part of a championship here. "I think I'm at the stage of my career where I'm just trying to enjoy every game. I know my career's not going to last forever. It's just fun to be part of everything right now."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.