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Maple Leafs' Phaneuf hits captaincy stride

DETROIT – On this edition of "Hockey Night in Canada," the Toronto Maple Leafs will continue their playoff push against the Detroit Red Wings, and there is no question their captain will keep yapping, keep scowling, keep snarling.

The question is whether he will keep smiling.

Yes, Dion Phaneuf(notes) smiles. He has been smiling a little more lately, in fact. Last Saturday on "Hockey Night," the Leafs beat the Boston Bruins 5-2. Because he was working this game between the benches, CBC's Elliotte Friedman hopped onto the ice to interview Nazem Kadri(notes) about scoring his first NHL goal, instead of waiting to do it later outside the dressing room as usual. Phaneuf skated by with what Friedman called a "sly smile."

"No, no, no," Phaneuf barked at Kadri, according to Friedman. "You come in the room first, and then you do the interview."

Kadri froze. He didn't know what to do. He didn't want to make a rookie mistake.

Then Phaneuf's smile went from sly to wide, and he skated off as Kadri laughed.

"It was interesting, because I don't know if he does that two or three months ago," Friedman said. "I think that shows how much more comfortable he's gotten."

Two or three months ago, the Leafs weren't winning like this. Phaneuf wasn't playing like this. Two or three months ago, the Leafs had little hope of backing up Phaneuf's preseason bluster about making the playoffs.

They still have little hope. Both Buffalo and Carolina won Friday night, leaving the Leafs five points behind the eighth-place Sabres and two points behind the ninth-place Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference – and both the Sabres and Hurricanes have a game in hand. The Leafs better be great in their final seven games and better get some help, or their playoff drought, already the longest in the franchise's 94-year history, will stretch to six seasons.

But the Leafs have won three in a row and have gone 15-6-5 since Feb. 1, and whether they make it or not, there are reasons to believe this isn't another one of those the-pressure's-off, fool's-gold, late-season surges that mean nothing for the future. Phaneuf is one of those reasons.

"We're in the playoff race right now," Phaneuf said. "We're right in it. We had some ups and we had some downs, but the biggest thing this year was how we responded to them, and I think we learned as a group. I think we're a better team because of that."

This is what the Leafs had in mind when they acquired Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames on Jan. 31, 2010, and named him captain June 14. General manager Brian Burke was trying to change the culture in Toronto, and he brought in a talented player whom he saw as a leader. Phaneuf is in Burke's mold – bold and loud.

Though reserved in the media, Phaneuf has always been high volume, from talking trash to older guys playing paintball in junior, to getting in guys' faces with the Flames, to cranking up the stereo as soon as he entered the room with the Leafs.

"If Dion's within 100 yards of you, you'll know," Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek(notes) said. "You'll hear him. You always hear him."

But people aren't going to listen unless you excel on the ice.

Though he scored 20 goals as a rookie in 2005-06 and was runner-up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman in 2007-08, Phaneuf rubbed some folks the wrong way in Calgary. He had his critics. He got traded.

And he was struggling so badly in Toronto early this season, he was being booed at Air Canada Centre.

During the first intermission of a 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 2, Burke held an impromptu interview session in which he chastised the boo-birds. Then, in the second period, an errant skate blade sliced deeply into Phaneuf's left leg. It sliced so deeply that it cut his medial collateral ligament. The blade went right down to the bone.

Phaneuf had to go to the hospital. He had to have surgery. He had to have his leg sewn and stapled shut. He had to sit out for more than a month, and he had to get up to speed once he returned.

"It took longer than I thought to get back, that's for sure," Phaneuf said. "When you miss that much time and you come back, guys are in midseason form, and you're a step behind. So it takes a little bit to get back up to the pace of the game."

Phaneuf said he started to feel like himself again after the all-star break. Soon afterward, the Leafs traded his defense partner, Francois Beauchemin(notes), to the Anaheim Ducks. Not long after that, they traded defenseman Tomas Kaberle(notes) to the Bruins.

One theory is that Phaneuf felt more comfortable as captain after the departure of Beauchemin, a vocal veteran, and Kaberle, who had been the longest-tenured Leaf. He and coach Ron Wilson dismissed that theory.

But when Beauchemin left, the Leafs called up defenseman Keith Aulie(notes), whom they had acquired from Calgary in the same trade in which they acquired Phaneuf. They paired Aulie with Phaneuf, and Wilson pointed to that as the reason Phaneuf has played better since.

Phaneuf and Beauchemin are both high-risk players. But Aulie is steady – a physical presence who can knock you down or pin you in the corner, a good skater with a long reach who can be tough to beat one-on-one. In other words, a good complement for Phaneuf. Wilson said Phaneuf "trusts Keith Aulie's going to get the job done, so he feels comfortable jumping into the play."

Aulie joined the lineup Feb. 10. Since Feb. 24, Phaneuf has five goals and 13 points in 15 games. He has been more accurate with his cannon of a shot. He has made fewer mistakes – or at least hasn't been burned as often for his mistakes, thanks to Aulie.

"I think this is the best that I've seen him play," Komisarek said. "He's a huge part of why we've had so much success."

The Leafs are counting on him to be a huge part of their success in the future. They have a budding back end with 24-year-old Carl Gunnarsson(notes) and two 21-year-olds – Aulie and Luke Schenn(notes), who already is finishing his third full NHL season. Schenn should be the best of the bunch, if he isn't already. But for now, Phaneuf, still only 25 himself, is the leader.

"If I'm out of position or something, he'll let you know," Aulie said. "He'll come back to the bench and he'll just stare right at you with his eyebrows down, with his usual look, and he'll tell you, 'You've got to be there.' "

The Leafs aren't there yet. But they're getting closer, and Phaneuf is giving his unusual look, too. And that's enough to raise some eyebrows.