There are nervous moments when Phaneuf fails to show for third period, but rugged defenceman just took stitches
The answer was heard often during training camp whenever questions started to touch on weighty issues such as the Toronto Maple Leafs' history, recent and not so recent. At its core was: "What's your point? It's not like there are a lot of players in here who were around for it?"
And the person most often driving it home was captain Dion Phaneuf - by body language more so than words, but emphatic nonetheless. The Leafs' 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens in their NHL opener Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre won't put the questions to rest. It was only the first game, after all, and it was loaded with caveats due to the absence of Canadiens' stalwarts Andrei Markov, Mike Cammalleri and Roman Hamrlik. But it was a necessary first step toward head coach Ron Wilson's aim of a quick start to the season.
There was also a palpable sense of relief at the final whistle, because Phaneuf was nowhere to be seen Thursday night at the start of the third period, his absence unannounced, left open to speculation. Nobody logged as much ice time as Phaneuf through the first two periods (16 minutes 40 seconds), and in his absence, all those preseason concerns about the Leafs' shaky defence became more pronounced. Luke Schenn, François Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek especially, suddenly looked lost.
Postgame, it was revealed that Phaneuf took stitches after being cut on the leg by a skate.
Phaneuf returned 7:57 into the third period, navigating his way gingerly around the ice at first, a little more engaged on his second shift. In his absence, the Canadiens' Jeff Halpern took advantage of a Komisarek turnover to pull the Habs within a goal at 3-2 with 17 minutes to play. In the end, the game was saved by Jean-Sébastien Giguère's two pad saves off Brian Gionta with just seconds left, and how often did Vesa Toskala do that last season?
The Leafs took the ice with five players making their Maple Leafs debut and Phaneuf taking out the captain's C for a spin for the first time in the regular season; a club so new that Schenn has the third-most games in the team uniform. And the opener showcased the usual - the 48th Highlanders, an a cappella version of O Canada and the summoning of past Leafs favourites for a bow at centre ice - and the quizzical. Tomas Kaberle, just days after being stripped of the alternate captain's A, getting an ovation that was at least as loud as that accorded captain Phaneuf? Colton Orr's ovation matching it for intensity and length? Well, why not. This is the city that turned Tie Domi into a folk hero, right?
Without Hamrlik and Markov, the Canadiens' defence was surprisingly quick to pinch in early in the game and it cost them dearly in the first period. After Tim Brent deflected Phaneuf's shot at 6:42 on a sequence set up by a strong Colton Orr fore-check, Phil Kessel gave the Leafs a 2-0 lead when Hal Gill stepped up ice and forget Kessel cruising behind him. Kessel jammed the puck past a spreadeagled Carey Price at 8:57.
Leafs' general manager Brian Burke has devoted much currency - literally and figuratively - to his defence corps, but it was an area of concern in the preseason. Plans to use Komisarek on the second unit with Kaberle were shelved, so Komisarek now finds himself paired with Carl Gunnarsson. Their effort on the Canadiens' first goal will not find favour with head coach Ron Wilson; Gunnarsson was twice stripped of the puck, and Komisarek couldn't cover in time to prevent Dustin Boyd's tally.
So the questions remain, as do the caveats. But the Leafs' top scorer scored and the penalty killers did yeoman work and the goalie might just have saved the game. As starts go, they've seen worse in these parts.