To go along with the Toronto Maple Leafs' strong play of late is the solid offensive effort of their captain, Dion Phaneuf. Phaneuf has been hot in the opposing team's end lately, scoring five points in five games to go along with his strong defensive play.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said that while it's easy to just say that Phaneuf is on a hot streak now, he thinks his captain has been effective nearly all season long.
"If he puts a couple points on the board, suddenly he's playing well," Wilson said. "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."
"Right from day one, Dion's come in and not changed anything. We've got a good, winning record with Dion in the lineup. Again, he takes a lot of criticism that's undeserved and you look at our record with Dion in the lineup since he got here last year, we're well over .500 and he doesn't get credit for that."
Wilson's comments aside, Phaneuf said that one reason for his improved offensive numbers of late could be that he finally feels healthy and back in game-shape, coming off a leg injury that cost him 16 games earlier in the season.
"I definitely feel better out on the ice," said Phaneuf, who missed all of November and the start of December after undergoing surgery to repair a laceration on his left leg. "I feel I'm moving back to the way that I used to. Coming back from a knee injury, it was the first serious one I've ever had, so it was definitely different coming back. You lose a bit of a step coming back into a time when guys are in mid-season shape. You're definitely a step behind, but I feel better now and feel back to the way I was moving at the start of the season."
Phaneuf's teammates have also noticed that the 25-year-old defenceman seems to have gotten that extra gear back in his game.
"The one thing I noticed is when he gets the puck, he's really skating with it. He's not afraid to go in the rush and start something with the puck," said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere. "I feel he's been doing that pretty well lately."
"You know when he's going well like that, he's expecting everyone else to elevate their game too," added forward Clarke MacArthur. "And no better time to do it than now. If you're ever going to lay it on the line, this is the time to do it."
Phaneuf's improved health comes as the Leafs are making a late-season push to sneak into the post-season. Toronto has earned points in 14 of their last 16 games, including 10 wins during that stretch. Currently on a two-game winning streak, the Leafs sit just three points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers heading into Friday's games.
"The biggest thing is we're winning games and it doesn't matter who's scoring the goals," said Phaneuf. "We're winning games and that's the main thing."
After a rough first half of the season, the Leafs are hoping that this year won't be like past seasons where their playoff pushes came up short, and Toronto gets into the post-season for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
"People just want to see this team get in so bad that you can't help but want to just give it your all every game. If we could get in, what a great thing for this team," said MacArthur.
"It's an exciting time for our team down this stretch," said Phaneuf. "We're in a tight race and we've been playing well together so we've got to keep going."