OTTAWA – It may be about respect or even honesty, but it’s certainly not about friendship.
Not now anyway, with so much glory in the balance.
Ottawa’s Dion Phaneuf and Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel, a pair of Eastern Conference Final combatants who used to skate as teammates on some other franchise, have not only been recast, rejuvenated and redeemed, they’ve been pitted against each other. As directly as a face into the half-wall.
And it’s a blast to watch.
Take Dion’s doubling-down on Phil in the Senators’ decisive Game 3 victory Wednesday night. First a hard check into the boards, road-blocking one of Kessel’s favoured bursts down the left wing, which Kessel believed involved a trip. Then later some feisty scrums and slashes.
“What you see there is Dion methodically doing what he knows he's got to do,” says Bobby Ryan. “He’s always involved in the hacks and the whacks afterwards, and he thrives on that. That makes him a better player and takes away from other guys' games.”
“I got a lot of respect for him. He’s a good friend of mine. But right now, it's not about that,” Phaneuf says.
“I have to play him hard. He’s no different than the other skilled guys. If you don’t, they’re going to make you pay. It’s nothing more than that.”
Phaneuf and the Sens have played all Pittsburgh’s skilled guys hard, limiting one of the game’s most fiery offences to a grand total of three goals over 180-plus minutes in this series. The Penguins’ only game-winner belongs to No. 81.
Sidney Crosby and Phaneuf have had their run-ins, and Phaneuf scratched top-six wing Bryan Rust from Game 3 and probably Game 4 with this one clean shoulder pad to the face Monday:
“Throwing his body around in Game 2, that was just awesome to see,” beams centre Derick Brassard. “When he’s on your side, that’s when you realize how lucky you are.”
But the Kessel thing is different. These guys aren’t just former teammates; they’re tight pals who’ve stuck by each other through ugly, tabloid times and heart-wrenching losses. They were the earth scorched.
Just two springs ago, before their destinies ricocheted for the better, the normally camera-averse Kessel blasted Toronto media for their “embarrassing” treatment of the then-Leafs captain. It was a real stick-up-for-your-friend moment, as honest as a body check. Peak Phil.
So it was of little surprise that Phaneuf stayed in touch, speaking frequently with Kessel during Pittsburgh’s 2016 championship run, and that he flew in from his summer home in P.E.I. to attend Kessel’s Stanley Cup party.
“Phil Kessel is a class act. He’s a great teammate,” Phaneuf told me last summer.
Simple words spoken slowly in an intense tone.
“I couldn’t be happier for him to win a Stanley Cup. And the way he played, he was one of the top players in the whole playoffs. Good for him. Well deserved. I couldn’t be happier for a good friend of mine.”
How do friends summon the scowl to battle on the ice for an entire best-of-seven?
“Kessel is just one guy; I played against a whole team,” says Brassard, who’s thankful to be done facing his long-time mates on the Rangers.
“It’s like playing your family,” he goes on. “I didn’t feel that comfortable.
“You’re wearing that jersey, you played with those guys, you went through three Stanley Cup runs with them. It’s a bizarre situation.”
Brassard saw Mark Messier’s appearance on Tim & Sid Wednesday and was affected by the six-ringed champ’s take on Ryan Kesler’s crotch-spearing approach to the post-season. Watch:
“It’s all about winning. It doesn’t matter what you do. You have to do everything you can to help your team. It was a pretty interesting comment,” Brassard says. “The end result is pretty sweet, so if you’re not willing to do that, you’re not playing for the right reasons.
“Whatever [Phaneuf] is doing against Kessel right now is something we appreciate because Kessel is a dangerous, point-per-game player in the playoffs. If he wasn’t whacking him, something would be wrong.”
Sens defenceman Chris Wideman agrees: “Those are guys who have been teammates and are close friends. If they're competing that hard against each other, then it should be no excuse for anybody else.”
Ryan was unsure what to expect when the Sens acquired Phaneuf, a man disliked enough by the other 29 teams that he’d once been voted the most over-rated NHLer in an ESPN poll of his peers.
“I never voted on any of those. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ryan laughs, winkingly. “You knew when he was on the ice, you were taking one in the backs of the legs.”
Ryan has been blown away not only by Phaneuf’s momentum-altering checks (“He did that last night with the Phil hit”) but by the defenceman’s eagerness to open up his home to teammates to plan and eat and talk.
“Pretty good spread,” Ryan says. “I love having him on our team. I didn’t know what we were getting with him because I didn’t know him personally, but he’s been an absolute backbone in our locker-room.”
Backbone, shoulder, fist, graphite — any softness between Phaneuf and Kessel can wait another week.
“He’s competing for his team, and I’m doing the same for mine. That’s where it’s at,” Phaneuf says.
“I’m just trying to play him hard, play him honest.”