It was sometime just before the all-star break when Dion Phaneuf sat in the Maple Leafs dressing room following practice and chatted informally with a couple of reporters.
Thatís a rarity for Phaneuf, who is cordial, but usually all business, in his mostly daily scrums.
He made it clear he wasnít making excuses for anything that happened before, but the Leafs captain said he had only recently started feeling fully recovered from the nasty gash and subsequent surgery on his leg that had kept him out of the lineup for 16 games in November and December.
He may not yet have regained the form that had him score 75 goals in four seasons while in Calgary, but a pair by the Leafs blueliner on Wednesday night in Carolina couldnít have come at a better time to spark the crucial 3-1 win.
ďItís the exact replica of the guy we used to see back in Calgary,Ē said former Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish on TSNís between periods panel.
Phaneuf now has seven goals on the season, three in his past two games and six in 22.
It ultimately may be too little, too late, but you could see the desperation on every shift for the Leafs on Wednesday night. By midway through the third period, they had blocked 23 shots, part of an incredible 32 for the complete game. Thatís only five less than the 37 Canes shots that made it through to James Reimer ... That first-period penalty to Joey Crabb sure looked like refs running scared because the hit was near the players benches. It was nowhere near to being an elbow ... Two of the leagueís worst power-play units this month ó the Leafs going 1-for-32 and Carolina 0-for-26, each had first-period goals. Go figure ... A word or two about Keith Aulieís night hardly does his effort justice, but the big defenceman logged a career-high 26 minutes and 26 seconds and looked like a veteran. Even better, with Mike Komisarek out due to injury in the third, the rapidly developing rookie alternated between playing the left and right side ... Nice rebound effort by Reimer in the Leafs nets after struggling Monday at home against Tampa. He made a huge shorthanded save on Eric Staal early in the second period and another on a three-on-one inside 21/2 minutes ... Thatís 13 starts in a row for Reimer, so if you are head coach Ron Wilson, who do you start Thursday in Florida? There was speculation that Jean-Sebastien Giguere would get the call in Carolina to give Reimer a break, but donít be surprised if the coach continues to ride the rookie.
Darryl Boyce has generally been a smart player, but that was a terrible brain cramp early in the third to take a retaliation penalty and give the Canes a power play. Having said that, Jussi Jokinen could have easily been given an unsportsmanlike on the play for his Alex Despatie impersonation ... To be fair, thatís out of character for Boyce, who regularly outworks the opposition. Never shy to block a shot, he also made a great play to set up Tyler Bozakís goal ... More evidence that it was a huge night for the Leafs defence? Carl Gunnarsson blocked a team-high seven shots ... Some observations on Nazem Kadriís return to the Leafs: Wilson hasnít been shy about showing tough love to the rookie, but heís always been a big supporter. Word is the coach pushed for Kadriís latest promotion and the expected energy boost it would bring ... After things werenít working out with Bozak, Wilson moved Kadri to the middle on a line between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul which may have been the most successful unit the kid has been on with the team ... You can tell the coach would like to use Kadri at centre, but until he gets better on the draw, thatís risky business ... Tempering the energy that he clearly brought to a team missing the same trait brought by Colby Armstrong, Kadri still seems to get knocked off the puck a little too easily.
Cool tweet by @reporterchris: ďHurricanes GM Jim Rutherford told me he decided not to watch last nightís game at bar with fellow GMs (at meetings in Florida). Too tense this time of year.Ē ... Sparse-looking crowd at the RBC Center may have had something to do with the fact this was the eve of March Madness, which will make all sports redundant in the hoops hotbed region for the next three weeks ... Even more impressive with Reimerís play was the fact that the Canes had netted four or more goals in five of their last six games against the Leafs ... TV timeouts come when they come. Sometimes they work for you, sometimes they donít. But the Hurricanes benefitted from one timeout nicely, getting to rest their top power-play unit before Chad Larose opened the scoring on a first-period goal ... With Armstrong out for the remainder of the season with a broken foot, Mikhail Grabovski wore the ĎAí on Wednesday night. Who would have seen that coming a year ago? ... It didnít matter this time, but thatís eight games in a row that the opposition has scored first.