PHILADELPHIA – The switch flips for the man with the “C” moments before puck-drop.
The jokes fade and the laughs quietly cease. Anger bubbles to the surface.
“He's one of those guys that you'll hear his voice a lot throughout the day,” noted Joffrey Lupul, “but when it comes time for game-time, you can definitely see a little switch is flipped. He's still vocal, but not in that joking around type of way.
“It's a fun game, it's fun coming to the rink day in and day out, but when it comes time for game-time you've got to switch that flip, get prepared and get a little angry. That's something he definitely does well.”
Dion Phaneuf has put a definitive stamp on the Leafs quick start this fall, comfortably and capably leading the charge in his second season as captain in Toronto.
“He seems to relish the attention and the certain mystique or whatever it is that goes with being the Maple Leafs captain,” said Lupul. “It's something he enjoys. And he's doing a good job in the room and I think he does a good job in the city. Basically, that's what you count on your captain to do, be a leader on and off the ice and be a leader in the community.”
“He's the perfect mold for the job,” added Matthew Lombardi. “He embraces it and does it so well. I think he turns that pressure into a good pressure.
“It's great to see him taking this role – obviously the captain role – and leading by example. Guys are following him so it's pretty unreal.”
Phaneuf logged nearly 29 minutes against the Canadiens on Saturday, scoring a goal and adding an assist in a 5-4 overtime victory, the fifth for the Leafs in seven games this season (5-1-1). The 26-year-old now sits tied atop the scoring charts for defencemen with nine points and a plus-6 rating. He's rediscovered the trademark physicality which made him a dangerous threat in Calgary – see the Stephane Da Costa hit for proof – also finding the scope on a shot which once found twine 54 times in a three-year span (05/06-07-08). He's doing it all for the Leafs at an average of nearly 27 minutes a night, rediscovering the elite game which saw him finish as a Norris Trophy finalist in 2007-2008.
“Since I've been here he's been our best defenceman pretty much every night,” said Lupul, who joined the Leafs in February. “He's been consistent, physical, he's a guy the opposing team doesn't like to play against and he's got a big shot too.
“You've got be aware if you're on the other team and he's on the ice because it can be a rush, a shot or a big hit. I think he's a guy that when he goes against the other team's skill players they know every time he's on the ice.”
Lupul and Phaneuf have an extensive history.
The two clashed for years in the Western Hockey League – Lupul with the Medicine Hat Tigers, Phaneuf with the Red Deer Rebels. Lupul has seen an evolution take place, if only in the finer points of Phaneuf's game.
“I think back then maybe he was a bit more of a chirper,” said Lupul with a smile, “and now that he's really an elite NHL defenceman, you can't be involved in that all the time – although sometimes I think he may want to.”
Case in point at the Bell Centre on Saturday night.
Locked in a testy interdivisional battle with the Canadiens, Phaneuf became ensnared in a series of physical and verbal jousts with the towering Hal Gill. But rather than settle the score, Phaneuf resisted before the adrenaline bubbled over.
“No disrespect to Hal Gill,” said Lupul, “but Dion can't be fighting him.
“I think that's a part of the game that he really realizes now too is we count on him so much. We can't have him trading off with guys who aren't of his caliber.”
It's these subtle elements of leadership that teammates have noticed.
“Another thing that I kind of respect about him a lot too is that he doesn't have any friends on the ice,” continued Lupul. “When he's out there he's playing against the other team; doesn't matter if he played with a guy before or whatever, he's getting under their skin and he's playing ‘em hard and I like that. I'm not a fan of when guys are out there chatting off face-offs and things like that. I think he leads by example in that sense.”
When he first arrived in Toronto in the early months of 2010, Phaneuf was vocal to the point of being overbearing. You didn't need much to see him on the ice at practice to know he was there. While that enthusiasm and passion for the game is still visible, it's apparent – even Ron Wilson mentioned it earlier this month – that he's toned it down if ever so slightly.
“He brings an energy everyday to practice and to a game that is actually pretty unbelievable,” said Lombardi, also a teammate of Phaneuf's for three plus seasons with the Flames. “He gets the guys going and he leads by example every night.
“He was doing that in Calgary as well coming in right away in his first year in the league. He's a guy that comes to play every night; he plays hard and he wants to win and he's got a lot of passion.”
Quite simply, leadership the Leafs can follow on and off the ice.
Still awaiting his first game as a Leaf, Tim Connolly made a progressive step towards a return at practice in on Sunday. Sidelined with a shoulder injury since September 26th, Connolly practiced with contact for the first time in Philadelphia, inching ever so slightly towards his Toronto debut.
“A little bit of soreness, but overall I think this was a really good day for me and a real positive step in the right direction,” said Connolly, who has missed the opening seven games this season.
Luke Schenn and Cody Franson aided Connolly in his re-acclimation to contact.
“Luke threw me around a little bit down there,” noted Connolly with a chuckle, “so I've got to get used to that again. But I think it's a good thing for me physically and mentally to get hit again. Right now I feel good, see how I feel tomorrow.”
The Leafs were also without Tyler Bozak for the first time on Saturday. Bozak was nursing a foot injury, replaced by Lombardi alongside Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul against the Canadiens. The 25-year-old practiced on a extra line with Connolly and Colton Orr on Sunday, making his status for Monday's game against the Flyers questionable.