TORONTO - You'll have to forgive Steve Sullivan if he's a little excited about his latest NHL point. After all, it has been nearly two full years since his last one.
Playing just his second game of the season after missing the entire 2007-08 campaign and half of this one with a back injury, Sullivan assisted on the third-period game-winning goal by Radek Bonk, sparking the Nashville Predators to a 2-0 lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.
"It was just great to be back and be able to make a contribution offensively for my hockey team and get a big win," said Sullivan, a former Maple Leaf.
David Legwand ripped an insurance goal with just under seven minutes left while Pekka Rinne made 17 stops to record the shutout for Nashville (20-20-3).
Bonk's power-play goal was the result of a brilliant individual play by Sullivan. After taking the puck at the right point, the slick winger moved across the ice, shook off the checking of Matt Stajan and snapped a quick shot that deflected off Bonk over the glove of Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala.
Sullivan was originally credited with the goal, but he knew all along it glanced off a prominent part of Bonk's body en route to the back of the net.
"I knew right away it went off Radek," he said. "When the referee came over to ask, we said it was tough to miss Radek's backend. So obviously it went off him and went in the net."
It should come as no surprise Toronto surrendered the game-winner while short-handed. The Leafs entered the game with the NHL's worst penalty-killing unit.
Sullivan played just over 12 minutes in Nashville's win over Chicago last Saturday before sitting out the return date in Chicago on Sunday night to avoid back-to-back contests right off the hop. After a fairly peaceful outing in his first contest, Sullivan was given a nice jolt along the boards by Leafs rookie Luke Schenn early in Tuesday night's game.
"He picked me out, I had nowhere to go, I took the hit," said Sullivan, who had roughly 20 to 25 friends and family from his hometown of Timmins, Ont., among the 19,223 in attendance at Air Canada Centre. "On my way down, I just hoped it wouldn't hurt on the way back up. I was able to bounce back and didn't really feel it at all, so it was a good sign."
Sullivan, 34, may not have felt much on the hit, but the Predators bench sure did.
"He took that first big hit and I think everybody probably held their breath," said Nashville coach Barry Trotz. "Even Sully, I'm sure he held his breath and then got up and said, 'Hey, I'm OK and we're good to go."'
Sullivan had a goal and an assist for Nashville in a 6-5 shootout loss to Montreal on Feb. 22, 2007. It was his last game before his recent comeback.
Trotz believes Sullivan, always known for his shifty moves, may actually have benefited in some ways from his extensive time on the sideline.
"He's just so smart," said Trotz, adding he's still very conscious of easing Sullivan back into the flow of games. "Two years of watching, he's even gotten smarter, just seeing the game from up top. He's just one of those remarkable, remarkable players and as we go along here he's getting better and better."
Seeing familiar sweaters is a bit of a theme for Sullivan on this comeback bid. He's been a part of three organizations other than Nashville - Toronto, Chicago and the New Jersey Devils. Having already faced the Hawks and Leafs, Sullivan will lineup against the Devils next Monday.
"The opposition, I've always said, isn't important right now," he said of coming back to Toronto. "It's just a matter of me trying to play the best hockey I can. Obviously it's somewhat of a homecoming; I've played Chicago, Toronto today and I've got New Jersey on Monday. I'm doing the full circle here."
Tuesday's game was a scoreless dual between two Finnish goalies through 40 minutes as neither Toskala nor Rinne blinked.
Toskala's best save came early in the game when he stymied J.P. Dumont on a breakaway.
Toronto (16-21-6) was trying to snap a three-game losing streak, but Rinne did a good job of limiting second-chance opportunities by controlling his rebounds and the Leafs really didn't do enough to force the issue.
"We were doing a lot of the little things right, but we didn't drive the net like we should and we didn't fire enough shots on net. Under 20 shots is not enough for this team," said Stajan, whose team was blanked for the second time this year after mustering a season-low 17 shots.
"It's frustrating, we wasted a solid effort by Vesa. There's not much else to say. We've got to be better."
Rinne, a 26-year-old rookie, is showing signs he could be a classic late-bloomer. Including his win over Toronto, Rinne has allowed more than two goals just once in his past eight appearances. The game marked his fourth shutout of the season in 15 games.
The Predators, meanwhile, won for the first time in eight tries on the road and now have victories in three of their past four games.
Notes: Tough guy Wade Belak, who played 318 games with the Maple Leafs from 2001-08, played for the first time in Toronto since the Leafs dealt him to the Florida Panthers last February. Florida shipped Belak to Nashville in late November. .Leafs rookie Mikhail Grabovski served the second game of a three-game suspension he received for shoving a linesman in Montreal last week. .Nashville captain Jason Arnott missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury.