“Dion was not very good, especially early in the game,” Flames coach Darryl Sutter said Saturday, a day after the team’s 2-1 overtime win over the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
It’s criticism that was seldom heard during the regular season when Phaneuf compiled a montage of highlight-reel hits while becoming the third rookie defenseman to score 20 goals. Sutter, also the team’s general manager, quickly tempered his assessment.
“You’re talking about a boy that just turned 21,” said Sutter, whose brother, Brent, coached Phaneuf in juniors. “When you’re 21 and playing in that element and in a position that next to the goalie is absolutely the toughest on the ice, it’s not easy.”
The team’s reliance on Phaneuf doesn’t leave much wiggle room for error.
Partnered with veteran Roman Hamrlik, Phaneuf averaged 21:43 in ice time during the regular season, the fourth-highest total on the team. He also quarterbacks the Flames’ power play and takes a regular turn killing penalties.
“It’s his first National Hockey League playoff game and you’re not playing him 12-15 minutes, you’re playing him extensively,” Sutter said. “You talk with the other guys and ask them about their first playoff games and it’s significant.”
Phaneuf’s struggles Friday night were magnified when Calgary received three power-play opportunities to open the game but didn’t generate any dangerous chances.
“When you’re a guy that’s looked on as a power-play guy and you get three right off the top and you’re a little bit nervous,” Sutter said. “He’ll learn lots from it because he’s a quick study.”
Phaneuf admits he did struggle early in the game.
“I wouldn’t pinpoint any one thing. I just have to play my game and I didn’t do that for the first little bit,” Phaneuf said.
Fellow defenseman Andrew Ference, who at age 27 is a wily veteran in comparison, is just two years removed from making his playoff debut. He recalls what it was like for him in 2003-04 and how things settled in as the postseason ground on.
Nearly two months and 26 games later, Ference had emerged as a key cog in Calgary’s defense. He doesn’t expect anything less from the talented Phaneuf.
“The learning curve is continuous, it’s just that Dion’s starting point is so much different than it is for most people,” Ference said. “The good thing with Dion is when he learns lessons, there’s no glaring black marks that he has to fix in his game, his lessons are tiny little details that coaches can work on after practice.”
With the hysteria that was opening night behind him now, Phaneuf looks forward to getting back on the ice in game two on Sunday night and showing more of his regular-season form.
“I definitely need to be better individually but our main goal was to win the hockey game and we did that. Now we move on to tomorrow,” Phaneuf said
Sutter says the key is for him to simply stick to his strengths.
“When you’re young like that, you just have to stick to those things that you do really, really well,” Sutter said. “With a player like that, it’s never a mistake or a flaw in his game, it’s just about how he harnesses it and challenges it.”