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Dion Phaneuf fitting in with Senators

Veteran defenseman has been stabilizer for Ottawa team needing one win vs. Rangers to reach Eastern Conference Final

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- When Dion Phaneuf entered the room for his first breakfast with his new team, the Ottawa Senators, he was apprehensive. These were players he'd battled against for every inch of ice in dozens of division games during the time he played for the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. But now Phaneuf was on their side, in Detroit for a team breakfast, a game and the start of his future.

One player was sitting there. It was Chris Neil, the most intimidating of Senators and a representative of the team and city Phaneuf was joining following the nine-player trade between the Senators and Maple Leafs on Feb. 9, 2016, and provided a new start for both sides.

But that didn't change the facts: He was the new kid on the new team.

"They welcomed me right from Day 1," Phaneuf said. "I remember going to my first breakfast and Chris Neil sitting there. He was the only other guy in the restaurant, and we'd had our battles over the years, but right from that morning, the guys welcomed me, made me feel very comfortable, and I owe them so much for that."

He has, they believe, paid them back in full for their open-armed welcome. Phaneuf has become a crucial piece of a Senators team one win from the Eastern Conference Final. The Senators lead the New York Rangers 3-2 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round. Game 6 is at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Phaneuf has stabilized the Senators defense behind two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, and has encouraged and eased the way for their younger players, like defenseman Ben Harpur, who mentioned Phaneuf's tutelage, unsolicited.

It was, perhaps, the perfect trade at the perfect time for both sides, with the Maple Leafs sending Phaneuf, at the time their captain, along with forwards Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert and prospect Cody Donaghey to the Senators for defenseman Jared Cowen, forwards Colin Greening, Milan Michalek and Tobias Lindberg, and the Senators' second-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

Video: NHL Tonight: Phaneuf Trade Analysis

The trade worked for both teams. The Maple Leafs, who were in a rebuilding phase, cleared the remaining five seasons of Phaneuf's contract, which has an average annual value of $7 million, and allowed Phaneuf to start fresh with a new team that wanted him.

As Senators coach Guy Boucher put it, Phaneuf has been "instrumental for us in the growth of this team, because that's what this team needed."

It also was what Phaneuf needed.

"Obviously a fresh start for him," said Senators forward Clark MacArthur, a longtime friend of Phaneuf's. "Toronto was tough, a tough place to play in front of, especially when the team wasn't ready to win there and he was there for the whole brunt of it.

"When you're captain everything kind of falls on your shoulders. I thought he handled it well. Can't imagine going through what he went through. I think he's done a good job here. He comes in and he can play a more quiet role and just do his job. He's done well with that."

Phaneuf didn't need to be the face of the Senators. He didn't need to be the captain. Those roles were covered by Karlsson, allowing Phaneuf to find his place and to do the support work that wasn't going to be picked apart and questioned constantly, the way it had been with the Maple Leafs.

"In the background Dion has been unbelievable," Boucher said. "I think it's been underrated, really, when you look at how he's done since training camp and off ice, what he's been able to do."

Phaneuf is one of three alternate captains on the Senators, along with Neil and center Kyle Turris, and a player who Boucher praised as being crucial to have on his team and in his dressing room.

Video: BOS@OTT, Gm2: Phaneuf drills home the OT winner

"Dion has been taking quite a lot of the load and what I liked about Dion is he's done it quietly off ice and it was never about what it looked like for everyone else and outside attention," Boucher said. "It was always about inside."

And one of the benefits of that was taking the pressure off Karlsson. They have become close, according to Boucher, something he would not have predicted but which has had a tremendous influence on the rest of the Senators.

"They sit together in the room, they do trips together, they're always together," Boucher said. "I think it's definitely helped Erik a lot, but it's helped the rest of our group. And if you look at the big games this year, when our team was having a struggling moment, [Phaneuf] is always one of those guys that came up big, whether he challenged the other team's captain, whether he scored a big goal, came up with the big check to start the game to get us confident. So he was gigantic to our team this year."

Phaneuf says he wasn't sure he needed a new start, or needed to leave Toronto. He said he never felt a burden playing there. He enjoyed his time with the Maple Leafs, just like he enjoyed his time with the Calgary Flames, the team he started his NHL career with, just like he has enjoyed his time with the Senators.

But when MacArthur is asked whether Phaneuf is freer in Ottawa than he was in Toronto, where they teammates from 2010-13, MacArthur chuckles.

"For sure," he said. "He's definitely easier-going now and not on edge as much. He's just fit in well here. You can tell he's relaxed and just enjoying the game."

And that has rubbed off.

 

[RELATED: Complete Senators vs. Rangers series coverage]

 

Harpur, who made his NHL debut Dec. 14 and played six regular-season games, has averaged 18:30 of ice time in eight playoff games. He's cited Phaneuf's influence on him, calling the veteran "a huge, huge help for me."

"That's probably the best thing he's done here," MacArthur said. "He's good with the young guys. He's professional about everything, and it takes the weight off of Erik. He doesn't have to do on-ice, off-ice, the whole bit. He's done a really good job with that."

It was something Phaneuf learned from the veterans he played with earlier in his NHL career, from Roman Hamrlik and Bryan Marchment and Robyn Regehr, something he tried to pass on, whether it was to Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly in Toronto or Harpur and Cody Ceci in Ottawa.

"I learned from some really good older guys when I first started and you just try to pass that along to younger guys that you play with and you try to help them as much as you can with information or experiences," Phaneuf said. "It's a great compliment and something that I'm proud of."

That goes back to the beginning, to Phaneuf's introduction to Ottawa, to Neil, to his new teammates. It goes back to their support of him, and in turn his support of them.

"I was nervous about coming into the [locker] room for sure, because I'd played against them so much being a division rival," Phaneuf said. "So it was a different dynamic in that aspect. But they welcomed me, made me feel comfortable, and I really have enjoyed my time here.

"I love being an Ottawa Senator and I really like where our team's at and how we've really taken a step this year and grown our game. It's great to be playing hockey in May, I'll tell you that."

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