Dion Phaneuf and the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have a love-hate relationship. It seems many of the fans love to hate the Maple Leafs captain. Well, the tide may be turning as he kept the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, pointless as Toronto beat Pittsburgh 4-1.
Dion Phaneuf and the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have a love-hate relationship.
It seems many of the fans love to hate the Maple Leafs captain.
Phaneuf accepts the responsibility of trying to stifle the opposition's best players and this season he has been one of the NHL's top shutdown defenders. It is no wonder he's in the mix to be one of the seven defencemen chosen to represent Canada at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Phaneuf had an assist and was plus-1 playing 25:38 against the Penguins. Crosby was pointless, minus-2 and played 23:33.
Crosby, of course, presents many problems for defenders, but Phaneuf and he are old rivals.
"I've played against Sid a long time and I've got a lot of respect for him and the way he plays," Phaneuf said. "I think he's the top player in the league. There's a lot of great players, but I think he just keeps getting better. He can score, he's an unbelievable passer and he sees the ice. He makes a lot happen when he doesn't have a lot of room."
Rivals play similar game
Anyone watching the two compete against one another would understand this rivalry goes way back. Crosby, never one to take any guff from anybody, gave as much as he took in the physical department and that's the way it always is when he goes up against Phaneuf.
"We've always competed and he likes to play the game hard as do I," Phaneuf said. "There's a lot of respect from me to him and I'm sure he'd say the same."
While Toronto goalie James Reimer was the game's first star, the honour could easily have gone to Phaneuf. His teammates appreciated his effort.
"I think that is why Dion is one of our leaders," said newcomer David Clarkson, playing his first game for Toronto at Air Canada Centre. "You look at every team we play against and when their top line is on the ice we want him out there. He's a physical guy, he plays a physical game and when you're playing against the other team's top line you want that. You want to make it hard for them and he's done a great job of that over his career."
Phaneuf wasn't the only Maple Leaf assigned to keep an eye on Crosby. Carlyle assigned the David Bolland-David Clarkson-Mason Raymond line to try to shut down the line of Crosby-Chris Kunitz-Pascal Dupuis and the Maple Leafs won that battle.
"It reminded me of my first couple of years playing with Jay Pandolfo and John Madden against those guys," said the former Devil. "I think when the coach puts you out there to do a job, and he wanted us to shut down that line, you have to take whatever direction the coach wants you to play. You have to take it to heart and that is your job for that night. I thought as a team we did a lot of good things."
Clarkson said it would be a mistake to simply key on one player even if the temptation is to follow Crosby everywhere he goes on the ice.
"We're not always worried about one guy," Clarkson said. "But, like said, when our coach put our line out against them we knew what he was doing and we just had to go out and finish out checks and play our game. We're not a team that is going to follows one guy around or worry about just one player, but I think if you make it hard on him and finish your checks and play clean and keep the puck in their zone you'll be successful."
Bolland continues to shine
Not only did centre David Bolland do a yeoman's job checking the Crosby line, he also scored a shorthanded goal in the second period, his fifth goal of the season, and then added another goal in the third.
"That's the kind of game you have to get into," said the former Chicago Blackhawks grinder.
Bolland admits he didn't see a lot of Crosby playing in the Western Conference, but does remember him from the 2004-05 Memorial Cup final when his London Knights beat Crosby's Rimouski Oceanic.
Bozak goes down
Centre Tyler Bozak is out with a lower body injury and was having an MRI. Right winger Joffrey Lupul missed his second straight game with a bruised foot, but will accompany the Maple Leafs out west next week and could play Tuesday in Edmonton. Forward Carter Ashton was called up from the AHL Marlies to take Bozak's spot in the lineup while Nazem Kadri skated between Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk on the top line.
Different goalies, different styles
There are a couple of significant differences in the styles played by Toronto goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. For starters Bernier absorbs the puck better which means fewer rebounds. Also, the former Los Angeles King handles the puck better with his stick. That was noticeable on the first puck Reimer faced against the Penguins. He had plenty of time to make a decision as to what he would do, but he gave it away behind the net which nearly resulted in an early Penguins goal.
Saves lead to a goal
Reimer made the best save of the game 16 minutes into the first period when he kicked his leg out and prevented a sure goal on a snap shot by Evgeni Malkin. The Maple Leafs got control of the puck and Dion Phaneuf made a perfect pass to centre David Bolland who broke in alone and drilled a 20-foot slap shot home for a shorthanded goal. Reimer made an equally impressive splits save on Pascal Dupuis at 9:28 of the second period.
At the other end
The great saves were not all made by Reimer. His opponent at the other end of the ice, Marc-Andre Fleury, made a number of exceptional saves himself, particularly of the glove variety.
Clarkson made his physical presence felt in the first 20 minutes. First he delivered a solid hit on Sidney Crosby and shortly afterward a frustrated Sid the Kid took a penalty. In the last minute of the frame, Clarkson nailed veteran defenceman Rob Scuderi hard against the boards and Scuderi had to be helped off the ice favoring his left leg. Scuderi did not return for the final two periods.
Don't mess with Phil
The Maple Leafs Phil Kessel was visibly upset when he was slashed in the hand and no penalty was called midway through the first period. On his next shift he lined up for the faceoff against Pittsburgh's Jussi Jokinen -- a pest if there ever was one -- and the two jostled drawing minor penalties; Jokinen for roughing and Kessel for slashing. Kessel, by the way, scored his seventh goal of the season in the third period.
It's no wonder Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle was a little miffed at Joffrey Lupul injuring his foot in practice Thursday while not wearing foot protection offered to all players by the organization. Lupul has 10 points in 10 games this season and 48 in his last 48 games dating back to the 2011-12 season. That year Lupul concluded the campaign with 20 points in his final 22 games. Last season, a turbulent one because of injuries, the Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., native had 18 points (including 11 goals) in 16 games. With Lupul sidelined Friday the Maple Leafs were thrashed 5-2 by the Blue Jackets in Columbus.
Mike BrophyMike Brophy brings a wealth of hockey writing and broadcasting experience to CBC Sports, having covered junior hockey for 14 years before joining The Hockey News as its senior writer for 17 years starting in 1992. Most recently, the Burlington, Ont., native worked as a writer/commentator at Rogers Sportsnet and as co-host of The Power Play on SiriusXM. Mike has written four books, including My First Goal, featuring 50 players describing their first NHL goals.