TORONTO -- Dion Phaneuf's happy homecoming very nearly came unglued all of five seconds into the game between his Ottawa Senators and his former Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Saturday.
"Look at the first shift and wow, I thought it was going to be a long night," Phaneuf said with a grin following the Senators' 3-2 victory.
Ottawa center Zack Smith cleanly won the opening faceoff back to Phaneuf, who immediately fumbled the puck and was stripped by charging Maple Leafs forward Brooks Laich.
Laich had a terrific scoring chance, just eight seconds in, but his backhand was turned aside by goalie Andrew Hammond.
Five minutes later, with Phaneuf still not fully settled, the Maple Leafs paid a warm scoreboard video tribute to their former captain. As the tribute played, the crowd applauded politely, then rose to its feet in appreciation.
Phaneuf skated off the bench to his blue line and applauded the fans in return. He clearly was moved by the welcome when he returned to the bench, spraying his visor with water after his eyes showed a glassy reflection of his emotion.
"I'm an emotional guy," Phaneuf said. "I said that this morning. I wasn't lying, was I? …
"When they stood for me for as long as I was here, it was very classy by them, I can't thank them enough. Tonight I'll remember forever. For me, it's a pretty good way to go out."
Phaneuf's homecoming had for days overshadowed anything else about this matchup between the two erstwhile principals in the Battle of Ontario, neither of whom is likely to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring.
The last time Phaneuf had skated in this building as a visitor was on Nov. 14, 2009, as a member of the Calgary Flames; the visitors topped the hosts 5-2 that night.
A lightning rod during his time in Toronto, where he was captain for nearly six seasons, Phaneuf spoke positively, and at length, in Ottawa on Friday about his first game back as a Senator. He rewound and replayed that tape Saturday morning following his team's game-day skate.
"I didn't find [the captaincy] a weight," he replied to a pre-game question about the leadership issue. "There's responsibility and a lot of other things but when people say pressure, I was comfortable in the role. I enjoyed that."
Not everyone in the Air Canada Centre felt all warm and fuzzy about Phaneuf's highly touted return.
During the pregame warmup, high in the Senators end of the ice between two levels of luxury suites, was a sign that had been painstakingly fashioned, Scrabble-like, out of individual block letters on 14 poster boards:
Each letter was anchored in place by a small orange pylon, which you'd have to think was symbolic.
It was Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello, he being the "Lou" thanked by the sign maker, who engineered the Feb. 9 trade with Senators GM Bryan Murray that relocated Phaneuf.
The sarcastic message displayed was removed by the end of warmup, the pylons taken down a short while later.
Video: Phaneuf, Senators win in return to Toronto
Phaneuf wore an alternate captain's "A" on Saturday, stepping onto the ice at 6:36 p.m. to virtually no reaction. Senators coach Dave Cameron had him in the starting lineup, but that fact was lost on many since the Maple Leafs don't announce the starters of the visiting team.
Certainly there was not the reaction to Phaneuf to match the heat Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara gets in Montreal. Or that Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban gets many of the other 29 NHL rinks.
Phaneuf had heard some heckling much earlier in the day, however; his own teammates booed him good-naturedly during the morning skate to warm him up for what might have been coming.
Then there was that first, almost nightmarish shift:
"I bobbled the puck off the start [to] give them that chance to start," Phaneuf said. "I … felt like a kid again playing. I didn't feel my best to start and then after the tribute, obviously, I was emotional. I kind of dialed in. I said I've got to be better than I was for this team. They deserve better than the way I started, so I wanted to go out and play the best I possibly could. I felt that I got back to the level I can play in the second and third."
It was a few minutes after the scoreboard tribute that things took a different tone, with Phaneuf and Maple Leafs forward Colin Greening chirping each other all the way down the rink after the latter's body check of the former in Ottawa's zone.
Greening, who came to the Maple Leafs in the Phaneuf trade, finally turned to face the pursuing Senators defenseman as they crossed the Toronto blue line and nodded to accept what surely was the invitation. The pair dropped their mitts and earned five minutes each after a frisky exchange that perked up the crowd.
"He hit me," Phaneuf said of the birth of the dispute. "I don't know; [fighting] is still allowed in the game, there's not much more to say. I had to get into it some way. I figured that was a way."
Though he ended his night a goal and an assist shy of the Gordie Howe Hat Trick, Phaneuf still had plenty of memories to take from a game that preyed on his emotions, one he's delighted to have had but is more than happy to have behind him.
"I'm really happy to be able to go out of here with a win," he said, his statistics showing four of his team's 31 shots on goal, a hit, a blocked shot, the giveaway and five penalty minutes.
"The points were so important to us. Just the way the whole day went… it meant a lot to me."