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Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf celebrates his overtime goal against the New York Islanders during their NHL hockey game in Uniondale, New York February 28, 2013. The goal was his third of the game. (SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf celebrates his overtime goal against the New York Islanders during their NHL hockey game in Uniondale, New York February 28, 2013. The goal was his third of the game. (SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters)

Leafs Beat

Phaneuf deserves more credit for Maple Leafs' success Add to ...

He had just played 25 minutes, three more than anyone else on either team, and scored a pivotal tying goal while adding two assists.

But in all the media scrums after the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 6-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night, the questions for Dion Phaneuf were mainly about the plays his teammates made around him.

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Even though he had likely played as big a role in the win – and much of Toronto’s success this season – as anyone.

“He’s our captain and he chews big minutes for us,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “He plays the point on the power play, has got the big shot, he plays up against the other teams’ best lines. I don’t know what more you can say about him.

“When you start using a player in all those situations, you have a trust [in him]. We think that Dion’s been a strong player for us.”

That, however, seems to always be a running debate in Toronto, where the Leafs’ big minute man is often saddled with sky-high expectations and ends up with the goat horns when things go wrong.

But this is a player who arrived in a blockbuster trade with the Calgary Flames in January of 2010, with a résumé filled with question marks, some of them relating to defensive play and others to rumoured clashes with teammates and a media-unfriendly attitude.

None of which have surfaced in Toronto.

Instead, Phaneuf’s role on the ice has become more difficult with each season, to the point that this year in his first full season under Carlyle, you could argue he has one of the toughest jobs in the league.

For one, entering Friday’s games, he had logged more minutes than all but Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers, including three minutes a game on one of the top penalty kill units in the NHL.

At even strength, Phaneuf has been on the ice for more defensive zone draws than any other player (260) and, according to behindthenet.ca, has faced tougher opposing players in his ice time than all but four others.

And, for all that, the offence – what he became known for in Calgary – is still there.

Despite the fact Phaneuf’s role has become more defensive than ever and he spent much of the season paired with career minor-leaguers, he enters Saturday’s game with the Ottawa Senators tied for seventh in scoring among defencemen with 21 points.

Twenty of those – including seven goals – have come in the last 24 games.

“That’s my job, to be a guy that’s dependable,” Phaneuf said of his defensive play, calling keeping the puck out of his own goal his primary responsibility. “I know that I’m expected to produce, too, so you’ve got to find a balance. I know what I have to do.”

Carlyle intimated that his only real concern with his top defenceman is limiting his workload to a reasonable number.

“It’s hard for a player to play that many minutes in a shortened season,” Carlyle explained. “We’ve been playing a lot of hockey.”

Phaneuf’s popularity with his teammates also hasn’t been an issue, with many pointing out that his persona off the ice and away from the cameras is far different than what media and fans see.

Some even believe their captain is one of the more misunderstood players on the team.

“I don’t have enough good things to say about him,” netminder Ben Scrivens said. “Just because I could be talking for a half hour. He just leads by example and none of the guys work harder than he does.”

“I know people sometimes are quick to point out mistakes that he makes, but he makes big plays for us and he plays huge minutes,” winger Joffrey Lupul added. “Without him in the lineup this year, our team certainly is not anywhere close to where we are right now. And everyone in the locker room knows that.”

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