There is no such thing as indifference when conversation turns to Dion Phaneuf. He’s either the all-star captain of the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs, a franchise fellow. Or he’s the most over-rated player in the NHL as voted on by his peers, who did so gleefully.
So it was Tuesday night that the Maple Leafs were cheered loudly in Calgary against the Flames while Phaneuf, the former Flame defenceman, was jeered every time he touched the puck.
Ah, but there were a few exceptions. Like the time Phaneuf was on the ice for the Flames’ first goal. And the time he was on the ice for the Flames’ second goal. He got applause for that. Then there were the great big cheers when Phaneuf tied up Paul Byron on a breakaway, giving Calgary a penalty shot.
Added up, those three plays helped the Flames build a quick lead en route to a crucial 5-1 win at the Scotiabank Saddledome. It marked the sixth game in a row Calgary has earned at least a single point in the standings. The Flames now sit one point behind the eighth-place Phoenix Coyotes.
The Leafs, meanwhile, have now lost four in a row and their hold on the final playoff spot in the East is tenuous, at best. And yet, the focal point of last night’s game was the return of Dion two years after he was traded to Toronto (which many Calgary fans approved of at the time) for an underwhelming assortment of players (which Calgary fans loathed).
Earlier in the day, Phaneuf had said he enjoyed his years here and really liked coming back. He might have been thinking otherwise midway through the second period.
For starters, he was paired with Mike Komisarek, who had been a healthy scratch the last six games. They weren’t a great match and it showed. Alex Tanguay, after almost setting up Jarome Iginla, got the puck back in front of the Leafs’ net and lifted a high shot past Jonas Gustavsson at 4:43.
Roughly four minutes later, the Flames jumped on a loose puck for a two-on-one rush with Olli Jokinen and Tanguay skating in on the ever-popular Phaneuf. Jokinen one-timed Tanguay’s splendid pass and it was 2-0 Calgary.
“We had a couple of coverage mistakes early and they took advantage of that,” assessed Toronto head coach Ron Wilson.
In the second period, Phaneuf hooked a speeding Byron to force a penalty shot. Byron went to his forehand and beat Gustavsson to make the score 3-1. The goal was Byron’s third this season. Blake Comeau and Iginla also scored for Calgary.
“It was a mistake on my part,” Phaneuf said of his hook on Byron. “I got my stick in there … it was a bad decision.” As for the rest of the game, Phaneuf added: “They came out and started the way they usually do in this building. They got pucks deep. They came hard early and never looked back.”
The best Leaf on the night was Tyler Bozak. The 25-year-old centreman from Regina, playing in front of 18 family members and friends, scored late in the first period and buzzed Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff with other chances.
For Bozak, the goal, his 13th of the season, gives him a career-best 35 points in 48 games, a respectable showing for the undrafted player.
“I think I’ve done pretty well,” Bozak said after the morning skate. “I had just four points in 15 games to start the season and since then I’ve been better. Obviously, I’m playing with two great wingers (Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel). What I try to do is be the guy driving the net three on two so I can create some space for them to make plays and shoot.
“I think we’re doing all right.”
Toronto skated well and fired plenty of shots at Kiprusoff, but as Wilson had warned, that wasn’t going to be enough. The Leafs needed traffic in front of the Calgary and they didn’t come through or generate any rebound chances.
“We have to find a way to get guys to the net,” he said following the loss.
Toronto now plays the Oilers in Edmonton on Wednesday before taking on the Canucks in Vancouver on Saturday. James Reimer is expected to start in goal for Toronto against the Oilers.
The Flames embark on a two-game road trip to play the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings.