Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Vesa Toskala (left) is congratulated by Mats Sundin after the Leafs defeated the Washington Capitals 3-2 in NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday Jan. 23, 2008. The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn
TORONTO - Hold the moving vans, the Maple Leafs aren't done yet.
With Cliff Fletcher scrutinizing the lineup in his first game as interim general manager after replacing John Ferguson, captain Mats Sundin scored with 29.2 seconds remaining to give Toronto a 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night. "With everything that's happened, we all feel pressure to win," said Sundin. "Everybody feels it's time to pull up the socks."
Sundin's 21st goal of the season was the 544th of his career, tying him with the late Maurice (Rocket) Richard for 24th on the all-time NHL list.
"We've got bigger and more important things to think about right now," Sundin said. "But Rocket Richard was a player we all know about and to score as many as him and be mentioned with him is a great honour."
The 37-year-old Swede swept a rebound under a sprawling Olaf Kolzig just when it looked as if overtime was inevitable.
"I snuck it underneath him," said Sundin.
It was the 93rd winning goal of his career. Only Jaromir Jagr (111) and Brendan Shanahan (108) have more.
Chad Kilger and Alex Steen scored Toronto's other goals, and Vesa Toskala made 30 saves.
The teams meet Thursday night in Washington, and Toskala is ready to go again.
"Probably," he said. "I feel good."
He's no longer bothered by a sore groin, which is great news for the Leafs as they embark upon their longshot bid for a playoff berth.
The Leafs lost Alexei Ponikarovsky when the left-winger hurt his right shoulder against the end boards on a hit from behind by Steve Eminger in the 12th minute.
The Leafs won for the fourth time in their last five games.
"There was a lot of talk surrounding the team the last six weeks and we've tried to keep our focus," said Kilger. "We know we have a good team. We just have to prove it."
Toronto moved even on points at 48 with the idle Florida Panthers, who are 12th in the Eastern Conference. Toronto is five points behind eighth-place Boston, and the Bruins have two games in hand.
Fletcher served notice to the players when he took over Tuesday that they'd better quickly move into position to challenge for a playoff berth if they wanted to avoid roster changes.
With the Feb. 26 trading deadline closing in, Fletcher said that "within two weeks we should be prepared to, philosophically at least, know what direction we've chosen to go in."
The only place the players want to go is into the post-season.
"It was good to get a win in his first game," said Toskala. "It was a huge two points for us."
The Leafs have been on the upswing since returning from a disappointing trip to California and beating the Caps will fuel team confidence.
"We really kept building on some of the good things we've been doing," Sundin said. "We played a really fast team that has been playing well.
"We've been playing better defensively and giving ourselves a chance to win."
Alexander Ovechkin scored his league-best 39th goal and Alexander Semin also scored for Washington, while Kolzig made 21 saves.
Kilger opened the scoring at 7:12 when he deflected in Anton Stralman's pass from the blue-line for his ninth goal, and Ovechkin tied it 2:27 into the second period when he pounced on a loose puck in the middle of Toronto's zone and fired a wrist shot into a top corner of the net.
Steen put Toronto up 2-1 at 18:44 of the second. Sundin darted out from behind the net and sent a cross-crease pass to an onrushing Nik Antropov, who missed the puck and went flying. Kolzig had moved to his left towards Sundin. Steen was alone to Kolzig's right, and the puck landed on his stick for an easy relay into the open side of the net for his 10th.
Semin tied it 2-2 at 13:07 of the third when he went around Pavel Kubina as if Kubina was a pylon, deked Toskala one way, pulled the puck the other way, and stuffed it into the gaping net for his 12th.
Sundin then came through in the clutch, as he does so often.
"We didn't give up, but we didn't play our best hockey," said Washington defenceman Tom Poti. "We didn't play that well in the second period, and it showed."
Washington had won four in a row and eight of previous 10. The Capitals have been much better since Bruce Boudreau was named head coach last Nov. 22, although they couldn't get past the Leafs on this night.
"In spurts, they came on, and they played very good," Boudreau said of the Leafs. "From the bench, we recognized their spurts and their pushes.
"We just didn't contain them."
For Leafs fans who are hoping for a total rebuilding project, Washington was the perfect team to provide the opposition for the first game of Fletcher's second coming.
It was only by starting from scratch in the NHL basement that the Caps was able to acquire first-round draft picks Ovechkin, Eminger, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. This core of young players will make Washington a contender - the envy of fans in Toronto and elsewhere whose teams cling to the status quo year after year.
Notes: Toronto was 0-for-3 and Washington was 0-for-4 on power plays . . . Attendance was 19,479 . . . Ovechkin signed a US$124-million, 13-year contract extension on Jan. 10 . . . D Bryan McCabe missed a 17th game since breaking his left hand Dec. 15. The Leafs have earned 14 of a possible 34 points in his absence . . . Sundin entered this game ranked second in the NHL to only Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour in faceoffs taken and faceoff wins. In 1,177 drops of the puck in 49 games, Sundin had won 645 (54.8 per cent) . . . Fletcher says he'll examine an expanded role for former Leafs captain Doug Gilmour, who is involved in player development with the team . . . Toronto-born Boudreau scored 68 goals in 69 games in 1974-75 with the junior Toronto Marlies and helped them win a Memorial Cup. He was drafted by the Leafs and played 134 games for them over seven seasons, scoring 27 goals, but he spent most of his pro career in the minors. He remains a member of the Leafs' alumni association . . . The Leafs play at home against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday.