Alter on Leafs: Phaneuf’s toughest challenge lies ahead

Dion Phaneuf becomes a free agent after the 2013-14 season. (CP photo)

It was a mistake that couldn’t go unnoticed.

With the game on the line, Dion Phaneuf took a chance by pinching in and throwing a check to force pressure on the attack. The move would prove costly, as the Bruins would go back the other way, allowing David Krejci to score the OT winner in Game 4 and with it, a 3-1 stranglehold in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

It was arguably the biggest mistake so far in his tenure as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, given the magnitude of the result. In true captain form, he took the blame by addressing his teammates in the locker room.

“Yeah I did,” Phaneuf said following Thursday’s off-ice workout. “Obviously I take full responsibility for that play. It’s a mistake at a costly time.”

As good teams do, many stepped in to defend their captain acknowledging that Phaneuf’s transgressions weren’t the only reason why the Leafs came up short.

“I don’t think matters for us who makes the mistakes,” Phaneuf’s defensive partner Carl Gunnarsson said. “Sure he feels bad but it could have happened to anyone. We had chances before that too to end the game and I think we should have scored before that.”

Special teams were just as much at fault for the Leafs falling short. A reliable component to the Leafs success during the regular season, Toronto was 0-for-4 with the man advantage, while giving up two goals on five power-play opportunities.

Turnovers, in addition to Phaneuf’s last one, have been a recurring theme for Toronto, many result in Boston goals.

Regardless of the how it happened, Phaneuf’s mistake is fresh on the minds of Leafs fans. There’s always been a polarizing debate about whether Dion Phaneuf is the right captain for the Leafs and surely the skeptics on that topic would have had the knives out after yesterday’s game.

“If you look at the way Dion has played for out hockey club, he’s represented our team as a captain,” head coach Randy Carlyle said. “He’s played 30-plus minutes, he leads our team in a lot of categories and emotionally and physically on the ice. Without him we wouldn’t be here.”

Phaneuf becomes an unrestricted free-agent at the end of the 2013-14 season. Sometime on or after July 1, preliminary negotiations are expected to begin with the Leafs and Phaneuf’s camp on an extension. The value of the deal combined with the direction of the Maple Leafs will ultimately decide on how things play out. His recent play will be discussed.

Instead of Phaneuf looking down on himself for his mistakes, he’s now presented with a golden opportunity to be the guy who helps lead this team out of the hole they are currently in. If he can do that, while being a solid contributor on the ice, Phaneuf can erase the minds of many skeptics that are out there.

Phaneuf’s minutes are only expected to increase. The loss of Mark Fraser for Game 5 with a forehead fracture could mean Phaneuf could log upwards of 35 minutes.

Carlyle has talked about flushing the past as the Leafs look forward to each game. Phaneuf can flush a lot more if he can bring it in Game 5 and perhaps beyond.

No time like the present to really earn that ‘C.’

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