CALGARY (CP) - The best scoring lines in the NHL will have to run the gauntlet of Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf to get to the Calgary Flames's net.
Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger may occasionally see ice time together on Anaheim's special teams, Philadelphia has Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje, Toronto boasts Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, but Regehr and Phaneuf should emerge as one of the most intimidating defensive pairings in the league this season.
Regehr, a defensive stalwart who played for Canada in the most recent Olympics and World Cup, was without a partner when the Flames traded Jordan Leopold to Colorado to get winger Alex Tanguay in the off-season.
Enter the iron-shouldered Phaneuf, who was a nominee for the NHL's rookie award last season in the most deep and talented freshman class in years.
''We have some very high expectations of ourselves individually and as a pair to help this team win,'' Regehr said. ''We're going to be facing some high expectations from the coaching staff and fans and many other people as well. I think we're looking forward to that.''
Calgary opens the 2006-07 NHL season Thursday in Edmonton (The Fan 960, CBC, 8 p.m. MT) before returning to the Saddledome for the home-opener Saturday against the Oilers.
Defensive centre Stephane Yelle is ready to play after injuring his ankle during the pre-season, but defenceman Rhett Warrener (knee) is said to still be a week or two away.
Phaneuf, Regehr and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff are the cornerstones of a Flames' defence that was the stingiest in the NHL last season.
Phaneuf was paired with Roman Hamrlik in his rookie year, but Hamrlik also has a new partner in newly-acquired Andrei Zyuzin.
Regehr is 26, six foot three and 230 pounds. Phaneuf is 21, six foot two and 213 pounds. They have young legs that can chew up a lot of minutes while dominating in their own end.
''It's a challenge every night when you go up against other teams' top lines,'' Phaneuf said. ''Our job first and foremost is to keep the puck out of our own net.''
They are both left-handed shots, play a physically dominating game, but also have the passing skills and smarts that make them premiere defenders in the league.
Phaneuf has shown himself to be the complete package. He demonstrated his durability by averaging just under 22 minutes per game in all 82 last season, while contributing 20 goals and 29 assists on offence.
''He's got a chance to be one of the five best defencemen in our league,'' Hamrlik said.
Phaneuf will be the one to jump into the rush and be a scoring threat from the blue-line with his booming shot. Regehr is the policeman at the back and he'll make the first man into the Flames' defensive zone pay.
''I think they work together because they are top players who can handle big minutes,'' head coach Jim Playfair said. ''It's not so much that one guy is the defender and one guy is the offensive-minded player.
''I think what you want to find is players who are hard to play against and those two certainly have the identity of being physical and fast players, who make good outlet passes.''
Both players say their adjustment to each other has been smooth.
''The biggest thing is us getting comfortable with each other, talking to each other out there, especially in the defensive zone where there's a lot happening,'' Regehr said.
''I think I talk quite a bit out there,'' he added with a chuckle. ''I don't know whether he hears me or not.''