Phaneuf shoulders the burden of leadership

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Dion Phaneuf wasn’t available for conversation yesterday which fits in a funny kind of way.

There is always talk about him regardless.

One game after a marathon 31:39 in Game 4, Phaneuf played a more manageable 21:38 in Game 5.

All of that, it seemed, came in the last moments as the Bruins mounted a furious but ultimately futile charge as the Leafs held on 2-1.

Dion Phaneuf played just over 21 minutes in Game 5.

Dion Phaneuf played just over 21 minutes in Game 5, a whopping 10 minutes less than in Game 5.

Game 4, you might have heard, ended famously after Phaneuf made a bad pinch in overtime.

Nothing was said about Ryan O’Byrne’s curious positioning in front of James Reimer or that Reimer looked awkward as the puck beat him on the short side.

This is the working environment in which Dion Phaneuf, the Leafs 18th captain, works.

It’s a bit like the joke about how many Montreal Canadiens fans it takes to change a lightbulb. The answer is three. One to change the bulb and two to talk about how great the old lightddddddbulb was.

Everyone looks better in retrospect.

Mats Sundin was regularly pilloried for what many perceived as a lack of emotion. Doug Gilmour was knocked for wanting out of Toronto when his game fell off. Wendel Clark, venerated in retrospect, was oft-criticized because of his penchant for injury.

Because he is a defenceman, Phaneuf is invariably an imperfect player. Give a player enough changes to make a split-second read and invariably, he will get some wrong. It escaped mention that when David Krejci ended the game, Phaneuf had played a staggering 31:39.

“It’s a game of mistakes,” said defenceman John-Michael Liles. “Unfortunately it happened in overtime but he’s a great player. He believes in himself. We believe in him. We knew he was going to have a great bounce-back game and he did last night. He played fantastic for us.”

When the Leafs fell out of playoff contention a season ago, the blame was put on Phaneuf’s leadership. When the Leafs charged into the post-season this time, few mentioned Phaneuf’s strong campaign.

Dion Phaneuf will never win the Norris Trophy but he is a true number one defenceman, a player used widely in all situations. During the regular season he was fifth in the league in average minutes played and third in shifts per game.

Despite his overwhelming use of Phaneuf in the regular season, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has tried to trim Phaneuf’s minutes in the playoffs. The Leafs captain is 20th in post-season minutes played with 24:50 a night, two minutes more than the soaring Gardiner.

Gardiner’s ascension is a gift to Phaneuf. Gardiner, not Phaneuf, led Leafs defencemen in ice time in Game 5 with 24:05 but, of course, Gardiner isn’t asked to handle the Bruins best players.

And if the residual effects of his season-long workload sometimes exposes Phaneuf’s fatigue (like nearly all the Leafs he had little luck in clearing the zone against Boston in the third period in Game 5) it also masks some of  the Leafs’ weaknesses.

Nearly half the game can be divided among the other four defencemen.  Because Phaneuf played 31 minutes in Game 5, for example, Ryan O’Byrne’s could be protected, kept out of special teams and spotted nicely in a 20-minute night.  The Leafs have no defenceman as versatile as Phaneuf.

Carlyle, as he typically does, suppressed any wild enthusiasm about Phaneuf’s Game 5 on Saturday.

“Everybody in the hockey world knows of the miscue or mistake that was made in the previous game,” Carlyle said.  “The response was what we expected.  He has pride. He represents our hockey club, he plays big minutes”

“I thought he played a great game,” said goalie James Reimer. “He had a couple of key blocks and a couple of good plays. He’s a huge asset to our team and he’s been big for us.”

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About Mike Ulmer

Mike Ulmer has written 210 post in this blog.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.



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