TORONTO -- Dion Phaneuf was having himself a whale of a hockey game. Then suddenly, in a pinch, all the good went down the drain.
All eyes were on the Toronto Maple Leafs captain in overtime in Game 4 when he elected to pinch inside the Boston Bruins' zone in an effort to nail Nathan Horton. In that regard, it was mission accomplished. Phaneuf drilled the Bruins right wing to the ice and it was clear he was in pain. Had the game continued much longer, it is hard to say if that hit might have affected Horton.
Nevertheless, the game ended shortly afterward, a 4-3 win for the Bruins that pushed the Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination with Game 5 back at TD Garden on Friday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, CBC).
Was it a bad play? Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said as much in his postgame gathering with the media. Toronto right wing Phil Kessel made an excellent effort to get back and take Milan Lucic, but defenseman Ryan O'Byrne was unable to stop David Krejci and it looked like goalie James Reimer was playing the puck-carrier for the pass and not the shot aned he was beaten to the short side.
"We turned the puck over in the corner and then we pinched and gave them an odd-man rush and they scored a short-side goal to beat us," Carlyle said.
True enough. On the other hand, had Reimer made the save on what appeared to be a stoppable shot by Krejci, who lit him up for three goals on the night, all would have been forgiven where Phaneuf's risky move was concerned. On that play, Phaneuf needed to be bailed out by his goalie but was not.
Phaneuf did not meet with the media Thursday morning, but his teammates were quick to jump to his defense.
"I don't think it matters who makes the mistakes, that guy feels bad, of course," Phaneuf's defense partner Carl Gunnarsson said. "It could have been anyone. I mean, he tried to be aggressive and keep the puck in. It was a split-second decision and it ended up in the back of our net, but we had chances before that to end the game. I think we should have scored before that."
Checking center Jay McClement said, "There are hundreds of mistakes out there every game, and we all make them. When you play his kind of minutes, he's been great for us. I think we just have to look at the way we played all night. We had lots of chances to win that game and we have to come out with the same fire Friday night."
The Dion Phaneuf we see today is not the same Dion Phaneuf who broke in with the Calgary Flame in 2005-06 as their first-round draft pick, the ninth player chosen in 2003. Back then, Phaneuf was a lowercase Scott Stevens: a big, open-ice hitter who didn't mind backing up his actions with his fists. He was also a scoring threat from the blue line who managed seasons of 20, 17 and 17 goals in his first three years.
Many believed Phaneuf was a sure-fire future Norris Trophy winner. Phaneuf, who turned 28 in April, still provides offense, just not as much. He was 10th among NHL defensemen in scoring this season with nine goals and 28 points. He still has one of the hardest shots from the point in the NHL, as evidenced by teammate Joffrey Lupul's broken arm. Phaneuf nailed Lupul with a slapper, causing the star left wing to miss 25 games.
Phaneuf also still hands out the occasional big hit, though they are fewer and more far between than when he broke in.
The thing is, with the Maple Leafs, Phaneuf cannot afford to be running all over the ice looking for hits and taking chances on offense. He is the team's No. 1 minute-muncher and needs to conserve his energy. In the first four Stanley Cup Playoff games his ice time has gone up each night, from 23:16 in Game 1 to 23:35, then to 24:19, and finally to 31:14 in Game 4, which went to overtime.
Also to be considered is the fact that game in and game out Phaneuf is on the ice against the other team's top players.
Carlyle said he is not concerned about any carryover effect in Phaneuf's game because of the overtime faux pas.
"We all make mistakes and in reality, when you look at the way Dion has played for our hockey club, he's represented our team as a captain, he has played 30-plus minutes per game, he leads our team in a lot of different categories and emotionally and physically on the ice," Carlyle said. "Without him we wouldn't be here."
There has been talk since Phaneuf was named the Maple Leafs' 18th captain on June 14, 2010 that taking on such a role with the club is too much of a distraction, that it has taken away from his on-ice performance. There is little proof this is true. Phaneuf is well-liked in the dressing room and, though he may not fight as often as he did when he was young (he had 10 scraps in 2007-08 and one this season), he remains an impact performer.
And if the Maple Leafs are to come back in their series against the Bruins, you can bet Phaneuf will be front and center in the heat of the action.
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