From the goat to the hero, all in the span of three games.
Welcome to playoff hockey, Dion Phaneuf.
The Toronto Maple Leafs captain dramatically led his team to a Game 7 on Sunday night, scoring the opening goal early in the third period of a then-scoreless Game 6 to pace them to a 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins.
It was a curious goal – with the big defenceman parked in front of the net and tipping in a point shot with the shaft of his stick – but it was also likely the biggest of his career.
Especially considering the circumstances.
Phaneuf had become fodder for radio talk shows and pundits all week in Toronto after blowing a key play late in Game 4, when he went for a big hit deep in overtime and watched the Bruins quickly turn the puck the other way for the winner to put them ahead 3-1 in the series.
Afterwards, he gave a nearly tearful apology for the mistake – and vowed to quickly forget about it and move on.
On Sunday, he did just that, leading his team in ice time and shutting down the Bruins most dominant offensive line – led by the NHL playoffs leading scorer David Krejci – until they finally hit the back of the net with 25.5 seconds to play.
But, by then, it was too late to mount a comeback.
“I felt the way the game ended in Game 4, I felt like I owed it to the guys,” a beaming Phaneuf said of the play, which he started in the defensive end by stripping Bruins forward Milan Lucic of the puck. “It was a mistake that I didn’t feel very good about. Luckily I was able to contribute tonight.”
The emotion was evident all over the typically staid Leafs captain’s face immediately after the goal, too, as he raised his arms and jumped into a hug from teammates Phil Kessel – Toronto’s other goal scorer – and Nazem Kadri at the side of the net as the Air Canada Centre went bananas.
His teammates noted afterwards they had wanted to see Phaneuf get back on the right side of the scoresheet as much as he did.
“He’s the leader of our team,” Kadri said. “He’s the guy that really takes the most heat when things aren’t going so well so it was nice for ‘Neuf to finally put one in the back of the net… He plays a lot of gruelling minutes for us against their best players, and I think that’s underplayed a little bit too. Hopefully everyone’s off his back a little bit.”
“We know what Dion brings in this room,” James van Riemsdyk added. “We love having him on our team. He’s a huge part of our team, a great leader, a great player.”
As with each of the previous four games, there was little to separate these two clubs on Sunday, with the pre-series narrative of the young Leafs struggling to challenge the veteran Bruins never really materializing after a lopsided Boston win in Game 1.
Throwing out the Bruins one empty netter, they have now outscored Toronto just 16-14 in the series and outshot them only marginally, rarely taking control of the puck the way they did in the opening game and in head-to-head meetings during the past two regular seasons.
So with neither team able to solve goaltenders James Reimer and Tuukka Rask – both of whom were again terrific – Game 6 eventually boiled down to basically a first-goal-wins scenario after a very tentative opening 30 minutes finally gave way to the trading of a few chances.
Phaneuf was the one who finally took charge, as he picked off the puck in his own zone, dished off to van Riemsdyk in the neutral zone and pushed undetected right to the front of Rask, where he deftly deflected Kadri’s point shot to bring what had been a quiet and nervous Air Canada Centre crowd to its feet.
Seven minutes later, Kessel added an insurance marker, picking up a loose rebound in front of the net – as van Riemsdyk created havoc in front by occupying two Bruins defenders – and depositing his third of the series past a sprawling Rask.
Lucic scored late with the Bruins net empty, dropping Phaneuf’s goal from being the winner to simply the opening goal, but it hardly mattered how it was designated in the end.
After the game, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle – who similarly to Phaneuf captained a Canadian team as an offensive defenceman with the Winnipeg Jets way back when – noted that he knew just how he felt in taking so much blame for last week’s loss.
“When you play as many minutes and you’re the focus of your hockey club, when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to go, when you’re the captain, that ‘C’ becomes pretty heavy,” Carlyle said. “When you make a mistake, which he did, your teammates want to rally around you and you want to try to correct that as quickly as possible.
“I thought his best game was the following game in Boston. He was much more under control, he did a lot of good things, he played some big minutes. And again he followed that up tonight.”
The Leafs win was made all the more impressive by the fact their young lineup was down a few good men, with a top four defenceman (Mark Fraser) and centre (Tyler Bozak) out with injuries suffered (or exacerbated) in this series.
Bozak was the biggest surprise, as despite entering the playoffs nursing a suspected shoulder injury, he had logged nearly 22 minutes in Friday’s Game 5 win in Boston and actually led Toronto’s forwards in ice time in the series.
He even took the pregame skate on Sunday but was unable to handle the puck, which doesn’t bode well for his availability for Monday’s Game 7.
Without him, the minutes fell mainly to the snake-bitten duo of Mikhail Grabovski and Kadri, who had combined for no goals and two assists in the series first five games after finishing the regular season ice cold.
Both put in admirable turns in Game 6, however, centring coach Randy Carlyle’s makeshift lines that seemed to change by the period over the last few games.
Kadri was on the ice for both Leafs goals and generally more involved in the offence that he had been in weeks, and Grabovski had a hand in shutting down Krejci along with Phaneuf.
But, beyond the missing players, the Leafs have also been using plenty of banged up bodies, with Phaneuf chief among those – even if he won’t outright admit to an injury.
After logging some of the biggest and toughest minutes in the league during the season, his ice time has been down and his play sometimes uncharacteristically off in this series, even aside from that disastrous pinch in Game 4.
But Phaneuf has gotten the job done overall, especially in these last two pivotal games to tie the series and bring it back to Boston, one last time.
(In an odd twist, the Leafs will even beat the Bruins in getting there. After Game 6, the team announced there was a mechanical problem with their plane, forcing the Bruins to bunk down in a Toronto hotel overnight and return home on the day of Game 7.)
Carlyle, meanwhile, can see something building in his team already – especially with the way they have embraced the success of teammates like Phaneuf, Kessel and Reimer, all of whom have faced so many questions and are now answering their critics in this series.
“They care for one another,” Carlyle said. “They genuinely care. They’re a big family in [the dressing room] right now. That’s really what we try to create. It’s not something that can just happen. But when you suffer and you have success and you live together and see one another on a day-to-day basis, the peaks and valleys and the blood and sweat and the tears that go with the group, bonds them together.
“Those are all things that are part of the fabric and the glue that puts this whole thing together.”