Captaincy suits Dion

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:48 PM ET

DENVER — His first year as Maple Leafs captain has had its ups and downs, but there has been no shortage of opportunities for Dion Phaneuf to show his leadership.

And none of those have been more important than the past two months as the team has gamely fought to keep itself in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

“We’ve gone through a lot this year,” Phaneuf said prior to Thursday’s game here against the Colorado Avalanche. “We had some really good stretches and some really bad stretches. I think we’ve learned from both of them and that’s helped us get to where we are right now.”

“We’re in the playoff race and playing really good hockey.”

Phaneuf doesn’t want to look beyond his next shift, never mind how the late success might help the team next season if it’s in a more realistic playoff battle. That said, as the first season of his captaincy comes to an end, he can see a steady growth spurt in terms of improvement.

“When you are playing night after night in a playoff race where every game means so much that it’s like a playoff game, we’ve learned a lot from that and I think it shows in our game,” Phaneuf said. “I think we’ve grown as a group because of those ups and downs and learning through those ups and downs, that’s the biggest thing.

“You learn as much from the good times as the bad times so the biggest thing is staying even keeled.”

As much as every night is must-win night for the Leafs, it’s getting to the point where spots on the schedule are must-lose situations — for the other teams in the Eastern Conference race anyway.

The Leafs had a chance on Thursday to move into a tie with Carolina and three points behind Buffalo with a win and then sit back and hope that either or both lose on Friday night.

The other complication though, is that both the Sabres and Hurricanes will have two games in hand on the Leafs who only have seven remaining on their schedule once they leave the Rocky Mountain State.

As steep as the task may seem to be stacked against them, the Leafs would love to get to next Tuesday’s home date against the Sabres with a real shot at closing the gap.

“Right now we’re working hard and playing for each other,” said Leafs forward Phil Kessel. “I think we have a great group of guys. Everyone wants to win. It’s a completely different feeling (than last year). Right now we’re still fighting.

“It’s just a good vibe around here right now. It’s a good young group.”


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