OTTAWA – Dion Phaneuf chooses his words carefully.
It’s not jealousy, not exactly, he says of the feelings he had while watching the final three rounds of the playoffs in every previous year of his NHL career. But…
"You want it so bad," said Phaneuf, with emphasis on each syllable. "You want to have an opportunity to get there."
He finally has one at hand now with an Ottawa Senators team few tabbed to get this far. They are the Bad News Bears of the Stanley Cup playoffs and Phaneuf is the alpha leader in their pack.
This is his first taste of the second round during a career that’s included 902 regular-season games, and after 12 years he’s gained an appreciation for the small accomplishment it represents.
"It’s been a long time," said Phaneuf. "I’ve loved the whole thing. The whole first round (against Boston) it was a challenging series, I hadn’t been in the playoffs in a while. You get there and it’s just a different level of hockey, a different level of compete.
"I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m really happy with our team, I’m happy being here, I just like our team."
The 32-year-old is almost buoyant.
He is logging the second-most ice time behind captain Erik Karlsson in the playoffs and thriving on the heightened battle for space. The Senators are also enjoying an uptick in possession with Phaneuf on the ice, in part because coach Guy Boucher has found him some 5-on-5 minutes with Karlsson and they’re controlling more than 65 per cent of shot attempts while paired together.
It is still a makeshift operation, the Senators blue line, but Phaneuf is responsible for standing behind Karlsson and pulling a fair bit of the rope in a positive direction.
As this series shifts to Madison Square Garden with Ottawa up 2-0 on the New York Rangers, Phaneuf’s coach believes that his biggest impact has been behind the scenes.
"This generation is different," said Boucher. "I was taught by the old one and coached by it and I saw the turn while I was coaching. He’s still the old style of keeping people accountable, which you don’t see much anymore in the new generation now, and you need that.
"You definitely desperately need that."
In Ottawa, Phaneuf doesn’t stand out the same way he once did when he was a brash young kid in Calgary. And he’s certainly a long way from having a flailing organization’s hopes placed on his shoulders the way Leafs management did when it named him captain in Toronto – although that’s still something he considers an honour.
Inside this particular dressing room, he actually doesn’t stand out at all.
The bulk of this team is built on players that have been plucked from other organizations – from Kyle Turris to Craig Anderson to Bobby Ryan to Derick Brassard to Alex Burrows. Even a homegrown star like Karlsson saw six other defencemen called to the draft stage in 2008 before he was.
Today, he’s arguably the best in the entire league at his position and among the absolute top players in the world.
Phaneuf’s experiences have uniquely positioned him to serve in a support role for Karlsson. Those two have grown close since Phaneuf’s February 2016 trade here, vacationing together along with Clarke MacArthur and their partners earlier this season.
"I thought he was great for Erik, deflecting a lot of the pressure (off) the defensive corps," said Boucher. "But I think also with the fact that they’ve become best friends off ice. I don’t think anybody could have predicted that. They sit together in the room and they do trips together, they’re always together, and I think it’s definitely helped Eric a lot."
The only thing on Phaneuf’s mind right now is stretching out this spring as long as possible.
His first five trips to the playoffs all ended in first-round losses – three of them coming in a Game 7. That makes this a new experience for a grizzled veteran, who always made sure to tune in when the Stanley Cup was awarded each previous spring to help keep his own fire burning.
"You just keep trying to push," said Phaneuf. "It’s just – the league is so tight now – the regular season, it’s so hard to even get in now. It’s a challenge. We always had real good teams in Calgary and obviously when we were in Toronto we lost that heartbreaker (to Boston in 2013).
"But now I’m here, and I’m excited to be here, and I’m living now."