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(MIKE CASSESE)
(MIKE CASSESE)

Phaneuf gets his swagger back Add to ...

No one would ever accuse Dion Phaneuf of lacking confidence, but with the way his game has improved dramatically the past two months, he appears to be back to his old self.

On the ice and off.

The Toronto Maple Leafs captain blasted in the game's opening goal in tonight's 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres, beating Ryan Miller on a shot last year's Vezina Trophy winner generally would have had.

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Phaneuf didn't see it that way, however, saying he felt he could beat Miller from near the blueline and without anyone in front of the net.

"Well, I did," Phaneuf said, curtly. "So I guess I thought right.

"He's a real good goalie but when you put one up there... I got all of it. I don't know what he'd say about it, if he'd want it back or not, but it counts, so..."

The goalie's reaction?

"It was kind of rising up and I didn't have a step on it so I looked stupid," Miller said.

The goal was Phaneuf's eighth of the season and 10th in 87 games as a Leaf, but six of those have come in the past 16 games. As tends to be the case in a market like Toronto, he had been asked about his lack of goals often in the first 70 games and often gave the same answer, again and again.

Not one for much self reflection, generally, Phaneuf simply had always remarked he was generating shots and sooner or later they would start going in. (He's had roughly the same number of shots per game as a Leaf as he did when he was scoring a ton of goals with the Calgary Flames early in his career.)

After beating Miller, however, he didn't like the suggestion things were finally breaking his way.

"I don't know, was that in off of someone, or?" he said, sarcastically. "What kind of break you talking about?

"I put the puck on the net and it went in. That's positive."

And that ended his scrum for the night.

"He's the same miserable guy," said Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur, who has known Phaneuf since the two were 11 or 12 years old playing high level hockey in the Edmonton area and is one of the most well-spoken players on the team. "He's all business and he'll always be like that. He's a guy you respect. He carries himself as a serious guy all the time.

"He's always taking, too. He's the vocal part of our team, especially with Army [Colby Armstrong]out, he's had to step up more. He's done a good job that way."

While he hasn't made many friends outside of the dressing room with a warm personality, Phaneuf's turnaround on the ice has been pretty remarkable, with much of it coming since the all-star break.

Including his 26 games last season and the first 33 before the break, he had three goals and 18 assists in the 59 games (a 29-point pace over a full season) and was a minus-10.

An ugly skate-cut injury to his one leg was certainly part of it but doesn't explain why he had been ineffective before that, never looking as sure of himself as he does now.

In the 28 games since the break, Phaneuf has seven goals and 12 assists and is plus-6, a nearly 60-point pace that is more in keeping with his massive $6.5-million salary. (And the Leafs have gone 16-7-5 in that stretch, despite trading away Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle last month.)

Whether Phaneuf can maintain that over the long term will go a long way for the Leafs, especially with him receiving more ice time than all but Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty the past two months.

His teammates rave about his recent play, especially netminder James Reimer, who said he loves seeing Phaneuf log close to 30 minutes a night in front of him.

"He brings intensity," Reimer said. "He brings determination. Character. And skill. He's a guy, you know when he steps on the ice, he's going to give it his all. He makes a mistake, he's going to work his butt to get back there. He takes ownership for his mistakes and he hates to make them.

"I love it when he's out on the ice."

And that first goal?

"I've said it a bunch of times to a bunch of people," Reimer said. "Dion has a ridiculously hard shot. He's probably one of five players in the NHL that can simply beat a goalie on the speed of his shot. So that happens. It won't happen too many times, but credit him for working hard and believing his shot can go in."

And there aren't any problems there these days. Phaneuf has his swagger back, which is likely to make for even shorter postgame interviews and, apparently, a bigger impact in games.

A trade the Leafs will no doubt take.

 

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