Leafs Storm Lightning
TORONTO (CP) -- Mats Sundin's importance to the Toronto Maple Leafs was never more evident than it was Saturday night.
The captain returned to the lineup after missing 12 games, during which his teammates' play deteriorated daily, and set up a goal before scoring one himself in a 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I haven't played a league game in a long, long time but it felt better than I thought it would,'' said Sundin. "You just want to win the hockey game when you're coming back.''
Jeff O'Neill, Darcy Tucker, Alex Steen and Chad Kilger, who scored into an empty net with 2.1 seconds left, also got goals for the Leafs, who improved to 7-5-2 in front of 19,390 at the NHL's annual Hockey Hall of Fame game.
"Playing the defending champions, it was a great test for our team and, hopefully, a confidence builder,'' said Sundin.
Sundin, who skated on a line with O'Neill and Alexei Ponikarovsky, wore a visor to protect the orbital bone around his left eye damaged by a puck seven minutes into the season opener Oct. 5.
"We were all excited,'' O'Neill said of having Sundin back. "When you can get a top three or four per cent player in the world back, it's always an exciting time for your team.
"It's just great to get a win and get a good feeling back in this locker-room.''
Evgeni Artyukhin, Dan Boyle and Vincent Lecavalier scored for the Lightning, 7-6-2, who lost their third in a row despite a 36-26 shots advantage.
Ed Belfour had a strong game in goal for the Leafs. John Grahame took the loss.
"We've got to win more 1-on-1 battles,'' said captain Dave Andreychuk.
Both teams were 2-for-8 on power plays _ a facet of the game that has been dragging the Lightning down. They were ranked 27th among the 30 teams in power-play efficiency coming in.
"The power play is such a big part of the game these days, with so many penalties being called, so our power play has to be better,'' said Andreychuk.
The Leafs needed only 17 seconds after a penalty to Cory Sarich to open the scoring. Sundin was behind the net when he fed O'Neill, who had gone eight games without a goal.
"He's one of those guys who, if you find him and get him the puck, he's going to score,'' said Sundin.
Martin St. Louis was assessed a double high-sticking penalty at 15:44 for cutting Tucker's face. With 10 seconds left in the manpower advantage, Tucker had an empty side of net to fire the puck into after Eric Lindros slid him a cross-crease pass.
Artyukhin was close enough to Belfour to smell his breath when he slammed in a pass from behind the net from Nick Tarnasky at 3:52 of the second period. It was the first NHL goal for the six-foot-five, 254-pound right-winger who played junior in Moncton and helped Russia win the 2003 world junior championship.
Sundin made it 3-1 at 13:17. The big Swede had an open side of net to aim at when O'Neill slid him a cross-crease pass while falling. St. Louis had just finished serving a penalty for high-sticking Bryan McCabe.
"That was an easy goal for me,'' said Sundin.
Steen upped it to 4-1 at 17:14 when he snapped a wrist shot from the middle of the zone under the crossbar. It was his sixth goal. The 21-year-old native of Winnipeg is the most impressive rookie Leafs forward since Wendel Clark burst onto the scene in 1985.
"He reminds me a lot of his dad,'' said Sundin.
Sundin played internationally with Thomas Steen, who rang up 817 points in 950 games in a 14-year career with the old Winnipeg Jets. His son is elated to be on the same team as Sundin.
"Right from the start, he came out and showed us how to play hockey,'' said Steen.
The Lightning rallied in the third period on power-play goals by Boyle and Lecavalier, who got his 10th of the season, and they were outshooting the Leafs 17-1 in the period before running into penalty trouble. Darryl Sydor was assessed a double high-sticking penalty for cutting Ponikarovsky at 16:47, and Kilger scored his empty-netter.
"We can do a lot better,'' Andreychuk said in a subdued Lightning dressing room. "There's lots of expectations in this room.
"We definitely have to get back to the style that we were successful with, and that's outworking teams.''
Notes: Lindros didn't get a shot on Grahame. His effectiveness has waned in the last week ... Sundin and O'Neill led the Leafs with four shots each. Lecavalier had seven shots on Belfour ... The least-used Leaf was Kyle Wellwood, who got only four shifts and 3:46 ice time ... C Nik Antropov (knee) missed an eighth straight game ... Toronto is 10-2-1-0 in its last 13 games against the Lightning ... The Leafs play the Capitals in Washington at 5 p.m. ET Sunday, while the Lightning are off till Tuesday when they play in Montreal.