He's simply ... Phan-omenal

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

It's almost that time to stop using the word 'young' as part of Dion Phaneuf's description.

Not that the 22-year-old Flames rearguard has lost any of the youthful exuberance that made him the game's best hitter.

Nor is it relevant the third-year pro struts around with the cockiness of a 10-year veteran.

It's just that given how far he's elevated his game the last few weeks, it may finally be time to drop the word from a cliche descriptor heard every time No. 3 comes up, anointing him "one of the game's best young defencemen."

Truth is, Phaneuf is now officially one of the game's best defencemen, period.

OK, it's a tad too early to add any Norris Trophy talk to his dossier -- he's got a few years to start making nice with the reporters who vote for the award first.

But the way he's emerged as a leader of his club during these, the toughest games of the year, it's evident he can now truly do it all.

No longer is he just the Master Blaster.

He is the total package -- on the ice, anyway.

And nothing highlights that more than the goals he scored in each of the club's last two wins -- YouTube highlight jobs that clearly demonstrate to the hockey world everything he's capable of.

With his offensive creativity growing with his ever-brimming confidence, Phaneuf's shorthanded end-to-end effort to open the scoring against Minnesota Saturday was a masterpiece. Reading and directing the play, powering through checks with speed and finesse, topping it off with superb finish via a one-handed backhand while falling to the ice ... all while his teammates headed to the bench for a change.

Tuesday night's game-winner saw him read the situation beautifully by staying at the opposition's blueline after a clearing play, shout for a lengthy pass from Adrian Aucoin and then step over the blueline to unleash a blast that beat the game's best goalie short side.

With his freelancing ability, he adds an offensive dimension opponents can't guard against. No longer do the Flames base their entire powerplay around feeding Phaneuf for a one-timer from the point, which every fan and defender saw coming. Just as Al MacInnis learned to disguise his intentions, Phaneuf's now smarter than constantly ripping slappers into shin pads or two feet over the net.

In his last nine outings he has eight assists and three of the team's biggest goals while manning more than 25 minutes of ice time in every role imaginable.

Named one of three stars in eight of the team's last 13 wins, Phaneuf has become the anti-Huselius -- stepping it up when it matters most.

Leading all defencemen in shots and penalty minutes, Phaneuf is also tied with Mike Green for tops in goals with 17. While still one of the meanest hombres to play against, general manager Darryl Sutter reiterated just last week Phaneuf still has work to do in terms of learning to play against the opposition's top players. The beauty is, that's Robyn Regehr's forte.

If not for the NHL's best leader, Jarome Iginla, Phaneuf would soon be wearing the captain's C. Instead, the $39-million man can try on his new title as one of the game's best defencemen.

NO. 3 IS NO. 3 AMONG NHL'S BLUELINERS IN POINTS

G A Sh. IceTime

N. Lidstrom, Det 8 58 174 26:45

S. Gonchar, Dal 11 50 164 25:54

D. Phaneuf, Cal 17 40 248 26:30

A. Markov, Mtl 16 41 142 24:58

B. Campbell, SJ 7 49 132 25:06

M. Streit., Mtl 12 43 155 17:32

B. Rafalski, Det 12 41 162 24:02

T. Kaberle, Tor 7 45 148 24:52

E. Jovan'vski, Phx 12 38 232 22:37

M. Green, Wash 17 32 206 23:28

Z. Chara, Bos 16 33 193 26:55

C. Pronger, Ana 12 31 178 26:05

J. Corvo, Car 12 31 155 18:28

K. Timonen, Pha 8 35 118 23:38

M. Zidlicky, Nash 5 37 120 20:49

OTHER NOTABLES IN THE TOP 30

W. Redden, Ott 6 31 133 22:13

M. Schneider, Det 10 26 126 22:07

S. Zubov, Dal 4 31 84 25:41

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MORE KUDOS ...

- In his last nine outings, Phaneuf has eight assists and three of the team's biggest goals while manning more than 25 minutes of ice time in every role imaginable.

- Named one of three stars in eight of the Flames last 13 wins.


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