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Phaneuf finally finding some offence

There's an awful lot going right these days for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And finally getting some offence out of captain Dion Phaneuf has to be right near the top of the list.

Phaneuf still has only six goals and 30 points in 75 games as a Leaf, but over Toronto's 10-2-4 run since the all-star break, he has been far more involved, with three goals and six assists in the 16 games.

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He's also averaging more than 26 minutes ice time a game and is plus-3 in that stretch, one during which Leafs GM Brian Burke dealt away two top four defencemen in Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle.

Phaneuf remains one of the more difficult players to interview in the league – even when the subject is his success – but he opened up a little bit today when he talked about how the skate cut he suffered to the side of his leg in the 11th game of the season affected his play.

"I don't think I've changed anything to be completely honest with you," Phaneuf said. "I definitely feel better on the ice. I feel I'm moving the way I used to ... That was the first serious [injury] I've ever had and it was definitely different coming back. You lose a bit of a step."

Leafs coach Ron Wilson said he believes part of what's helped Phaneuf is the play of 21-year-old defence partner Keith Aulie.

"No one will give Keith Aulie much credit, but I think he's helped," Wilson said. "He's able to get back to pucks quickly and he makes smart decisions. Our team's playing better and Dion's a part of it, but also because the team's playing better, I think it's helped Dion.

"If he puts a couple points on the board suddenly [the media say] he's playing well. He's a defenceman and we want him to defend first and be a part of the offence second. I think he's been playing well for most of the year, but he doesn't get much credit."

Crediting Phaneuf for his defensive game, however, isn't something many are used to.

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The fact is, Phaneuf has always been branded an offence-first defenceman, so without the offence during his tenure in Toronto, it's only natural that he's drawn some criticism. What's been the most surprising about his play this season, however, is that while that offence that has dried up, his defensive game hasn't been nearly as poor as it often was with the Calgary Flames.

Wilson has essentially used Phaneuf against other team's top lines all year, first paired with Beauchemin and now Aulie, and aside from some really obvious gaffes (like the one he made against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Chris Conner's goal on Wednesday) he hasn't been a major liability in that role.

He's obviously overpaid at $6.5-million for three more years beyond this one, but if he plays as well has he has the past 20 games, the Leafs can probably live with that price tag given how lopsided the trade now looks. (Especially with Aulie's play.)

The other thing to keep an eye on is the fact Phaneuf has been generating a lot of shots on goal, more per game (3.17) than even during his higher scoring tenure with the Flames (3.04). Odds are, at some point, he will find the back of the net more often in Toronto.

"I wasn't worried – I was getting shots on net, I was getting pucks through," Phaneuf said. "Sometimes they go, sometimes they don't."

Which is something we hear him say often in the dressing room. But there's some truth there.

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Only three points out of a playoff spot at the moment, the Leafs face the Chicago Blackhawks tomorrow night at the Air Canada Centre as their difficult March schedule rolls on. Sports Club Stats has Toronto up to a 10.7-per-cent chance of making the postseason, in part due to the New York Rangers really sliding (4-10-1).

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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