Phaneuf helping Leafs find identity

Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs shoots during warm-up before playing the Detroit Red Wings...

Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs shoots during warm-up before playing the Detroit Red Wings during a preseason NHL game at the Air Canada Centre October 2, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Abelimages/Getty Images/AFP)

GEORGE POPALIS, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 1:08 PM ET

TORONTO -- Coming into Tuesday's game against the Edmonton Oilers, 10 points out of a playoff spot and with a three-game Western road trip looming, this was a must-win game for the Toronto Maple Leafs. If they were serious about climbing back into the playoff race, this was the game to show they could handle an up-and-coming Oilers club; the same Oilers who laid a 5-0 beat-down on the Leafs on Dec. 2.

If its previous week was any indication of how Tuesday's affair might play out, betting on a Toronto win might have been a smart move. Consecutive shootout wins over the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals last week showed that this group could beat high-powered playoff teams, while a confidence inspiring 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday might have been enough to make this squad believe in themselves.

That's exactly what it looked like was happening when the Leafs stepped on the ice at Rexall Place on Tuesday. Showing that the positive vibes might be grabbing hold of this club, they cruised to a 4-1 victory with a solid team effort, gaining some measure of revenge for that ugly loss at the beginning of the month.

From the drop of the puck the Leafs' energy level was outstanding, and they didn't let up on a youthful Oilers team that clearly wanted to show that their recent success hadn't been a fluke. However, Toronto's solid play at both ends of the ice in addition to another strong effort from J.S. Giguere in net proved to be the difference.

The Leafs seem to have found a bit of a groove of late and the reason for that might be as simple as the return of Dion Phaneuf to the lineup. The constant energy he brings is infectious and is one of the reasons why general manager Brian Burke brought him here from Calgary. While critics love to point out the captain's shortcoming, what can't be denied is the enthusiasm he injects into the game, something the Leafs were sorely missing in his absence.

With the captain back in the lineup Toronto seems to be playing with more urgency, and the same goes for the recently slumping Phil Kessel. It could be pure coincidence that in Montreal, Phaneuf's second game back from a leg injury, Kessel snapped a seven-game goal-less slide. Or pure luck that the pair hooked up on Phaneuf's first goal of the season in the latest 4-1 win over Edmonton, a game in which Kessel scored as well. Or it could be the captain's positive attitude, helping his players believe they can contribute.

While there's little doubt Phaneuf has played a role in the Leafs' recent upswing, they are still a young team looking for an identity. The captain raising the level of his own play could fast track the Leafs toward finding their true character. Sure they've won four of their last six games and they're arguably playing the best hockey of the season, but the jury is still out on whether this team can sustain any prolonged success.

Just as fast as the Leafs got off to a blazing 4-0 start, they crumbled losing 11 of their next 12 games. If this squad wants to be playing hockey in April they desperately need to find some consistency, and it starts with the captain.

Kessel sliding a pass to Phaneuf on Tuesday, who one-timed it past Nikolai Khabibulin, was an encouraging sign that two guys looked upon for so much leadership and firepower might be heating up. It's a trend that must continue if the Leafs want to make a push for the post-season.


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