Did Dion Phaneuf suddenly find a dose of truculence stuffed in his stocking above the fireplace when he opened up his gifts Christmas morning?
It certainly seemed that way, judging by his play in the Maple Leafs’ impressive 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils in snowy Newark Sunday night.
During his time with the Calgary Flames, Phaneuf was at his most effective when he played with an edge, the type of sandpaper style that would get under the skin of the opposition’s top players.
True, he hasn’t showcased that same in-your-face swagger on a nightly basis since coming over to the Leafs back on Jan. 31.
At the same time, the Leaf captain appears to be getting back to mid-season game shape after missing more than a month from a leg injury suffered when a skate blade gashed him behind the knee in early November.
On this night, that spelled bad news for the Devils. And, in particular, Ilya Kovalchuk.
Beginning in the first period, Phaneuf spent much of the game irritating New Jersey’s $100-million US man, so much so that the two actually dropped the gloves in the second period. It was just the seventh career fight for Kovalchuk, who went fist city earlier this season with Washington Capitals defenceman Mike Green.
While the Leaf captain is a valuable cog on the Toronto blue line, the Leafs will take the Phaneuf-for-Kovalchuk tradeoff any day of the week. Physically goading Kovalchuk into taking a fighting major is a shrewd tactic on Phaneuf’s part, even if it meant the Leaf defenceman also had to spend the next five minutes in the sin bin as well.
His teammates on the bench agreed, banging their sticks on the boards in support after he finished serving his penalty.
If Phaneuf keeps this up, don’t be surprised if he spends even more time shadowing some of the NHL’s elite forwards. It’s something the Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara does on a nightly basis.
General manager Brian Burke’s blueprint calls for his Leafs to be a tough team to play against. On Sunday night, Dion Phaneuf was exactly that.
On too many nights, the Leafs are guilty of not getting enough traffic in front of the opposing net. They did a much better job of it Sunday. Even Mikhail Grabovski, often criticized for not going enough into the dirty areas, had his butt planted in front of a screened Martin Brodeur in the second period when Nikolai Kulemin ripped home the Leafs third goal. The Colby Armstrong-John Mitchell-Kris Versteeg line did a nice job of it too ... On the other hand, the members of the Phil Kessel-Tyler Bozak-Nazem Kadri unit seemed reluctant to follow the same game plan, resulting in very few scoring opportunities for that line. It’s easy to identify the Achilles heel of this trio — none of them are muckers ... It was good to see Phaneuf go to the edge of the New Jersey crease to create havoc during a third-period power play. While he does have a good shot from the point, he hasn’t been scoring with it too much. Why not plant him in front of the net now and then when the Leafs have a man advantage?
With the snowstorm along the eastern seaboard creating a travel nightmare, here’s some support for the idea aired by Leaf analyst Greg Millen calling for a rejigging of the NHL schedule during the holiday season. Under Millen’s plan, you would have teams in close geographic proximity facing off against each other in late December, thereby minimizing some of the transportation headaches that inclement weather brings. Because teams are not allowed to travel on Christmas day, visiting squads must fly in on the morning of any games played on Dec. 26. A number of years back, the Leafs were delayed getting out of Toronto for a Boxing Day game in Atlanta and were forced to cancel their morning skate. The result? Four of the first five shots that night beat a rusty Curtis Joseph as the Thrashers beat the Leafs. That wouldn’t happen if there were three-team “mini-tournaments” like Millen suggests. In this format, Toronto could be matched with Ottawa and Montreal; the Devils with the Islanders and Rangers; the Kings with the Ducks and Sharks; and so on. Makes sense, especially with how it would cut down on travel.
With all the empty seats in the lower bowl, you almost thought you were watching a game at the Air Canada Centre, where the platinums are always vacant at the start of each period ... Which were there more of: fans in the stands or Devils’ turnovers? We’re going with Devils’ turnovers ... Good to see that young defenceman Keith Aulie didn’t sulk after being sent to the Marlies before Christmas after a tough game in Calgary. Aulie had two goals against Hamilton on Sunday in an effort to show management that he belongs back up with the big club again ... Jonas Gustavsson, like J-S Giguere, appears to be vulnerable if you get his feet moving. Allow him to set himself to become square to the shooter like he was Sunday night, however, and he can be very effective.