Dion Phaneuf’s return a night to remember at the Air Canada Centre

William Nylander scored his first NHL goal, but Dion Phaneuf’s Senators got a 3-2 win in his return to Toronto.

TORONTO – Dion Phaneuf walked slowly as he made his way out of the Air Canada Centre and couldn’t cover more than five or 10 feet before meeting another outstretched hand and familiar face.

“It was a special night,” Phaneuf said Saturday before the Ottawa Senators bus pulled into the darkness.

That it was.

More emotional than expected. Much tougher on the former Toronto Maple Leafs captain than he was comfortable letting on – at least until a touching thank-you montage played during the first TV timeout, and the crowd rose to its feet, and some tears appeared in Phaneuf’s eyes.

He splashed them away with the squirt of a water bottle.

“It’s a night I’ll remember forever,” he said.

Then suddenly the game sprung back into action, and the past became the present. Bobby Ryan opened the scoring for Ottawa before the Phaneuf ovation had fully quieted and then Colin Greening dropped his gloves with the Senators defenceman and players that were traded for one another a mere 25 days ago started trading punches.

While Phaneuf and Greening sat in the penalty box, it became a night William Nylander won’t ever forget – with the Leafs rookie taking the puck off a Brooks Laich faceoff win, skating towards the slot and beating Andrew Hammond blocker side for his first NHL goal.

It soon surfaced that Laich had assisted on Michael Nylander’s final NHL goal exactly six years and 11 months earlier. The younger Nylander was told about the tie to his dad at the first intermission.

“It’s pretty cool and it’s pretty unique,” he said. “It doesn’t happen too often.”

“I don’t know what that says, I haven’t figured it out,” said Laich. “But it’s a pretty neat statistic. I don’t know if that places me in the category of a cousin or an uncle, but it gets me somewhere in there. …

“I remember my first goal and for him what a special, special moment. He’ll never forget it.”

The Leafs have undergone so much change so quickly that nine of the 20 players dressed Saturday never actually suited up alongside Phaneuf in the NHL. Remember that he was only dealt away on Feb. 9.

But they still managed to dictate play for wide swaths of the game, and pulled ahead 2-1 just after the midway point when Nikita Soshnikov ripped a ridiculous wrist shot between Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot’s legs and into the goal.

The Russian celebrated with blast of exuberance, just as he’d done after his first NHL goal earlier in the week.

“Just always happens, you know?” said Soshnikov. “Just emotion. It’s part of (the) game.”

You didn’t have to stretch the imagination to see the theoretical torch being passed. This was a night where Soshnikov would log 18 minutes and 11 shot attempts, and the line of Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman – two teenagers and a first-year pro – were driving play for Toronto.

Soshnikov, a free-agent signing out of the KHL last spring, has not been shy about exerting himself.

“You know, actually I (began) to feel confident after the two first shifts against Tampa Bay (on Monday),” he said. “Yeah, and I continue to feel comfortable. I want to say thank you to my linemates and our team, (they’ve been) lots of help to me.”

And then the third period began.

Methot tied it early and Zack Smith tapped home the winner with 2:15 to play in regulation following a dreadful Martin Marincin turnover. The young Leafs had a fourth straight one-goal loss.

Ottawa acquired Phaneuf to help bolster their run at a playoff spot, and to give them added depth. Another player that can be relied on. After a rough opening shift on Saturday, and the fight with Greening, he settled into the game and was a steadying presence.

“It’s not by accident he’s a got an A on his sweater,” said Babcock. “Those things just don’t happen. He’s a good man and he was good for the franchise and he tried to help out. He shielded lots of players here by taking the brunt of a lot of negativity.”

Now he’s gone.

There won’t be any negativity, not for what’s left of this year, but by the time the puck drops on next season there will be renewed expectations. By then there’s no guarantee the team will have a new captain – “No plan, no timeline,” Babcock said when asked about finding someone else to wear the C – and there are bound to be plenty of growing pains again in Toronto.

Phaneuf spent parts of seven years here and knows all about that.

He was once part of a core that included Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, James Reimer and David Clarkson, however briefly, and that’s a core that is now gone or departing. The sands of time have shifted and soon they’ll been washed away entirely.

Phaneuf is a Senator and the Leafs are forging a new path without him. And he without them.

“I feel a lot better now than I did before,” he said. “I just want to thank the fans for what they did. It meant a lot to me. That was some good closure.

“Real classy by them.”