Flames' success riding on powerful trio
"He's the best young defenseman I've seen in my time in the league," lauds the veteran winger with flat certainty. "Bar none. Not even close.
"I mean, he hits like a train. He's a monster. And he's only 20. How good is he going to be in five years? It boggles the mind. It's just too bad there are two other super rookies out there, because this guy he's special.
"Scores. Hits. Makes plays. Carries the puck. Has a cannon on the power play.
"He arrived here knowing he could play. Not hoping, knowing. And there's a vast difference."
As the Calgary Flames embark on a quest to go one game better than they did during the improbable Stanley Cup run of two years ago and follow up a 103-point regular season with the big playoff payoff, three influential individuals loom as make-or-breakers: Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, captain Jarome Iginla and the implacable rookie phenom, Phaneuf.
Kiprusoff, no one's concerned about. The man's only the best goaltender in captivity. If he doesn't stroll off with the Vezina, at the very least, some crusading soul should call for a Senate investigation. For any team to beat him four times in two weeks is going to take some doing.
As a freshman, Phaneuf has been nothing short of a revelation. In a non-Alex, non-Sid the Kid year, he'd be a Calder lock. In his first season, he led the best defensive team in hockey in hits (203) and blocked shots (97). He also eclipsed Gary Suter's franchise record for goals by a rookie defenseman with 20 and propelled a power play with the most lethal shot the city has seen since the salad days of Al MacInnis.
"Breaking in at defense is harder than for a rookie forward," Amonte said. "Way harder. It's an entirely different beast. You mess up as a forward, and there's usually cover. On defense, it's all about one-on-one battles, about not leaving your defense partner or your goalie out to dry.
"Dion looks like he's been around for 15 years, not one."
As relentlessly physical as Phaneuf has been, though, the emotion and aggression gets ratcheted up a notch or two at this time of year.
"I don't expect Dion's play to drop off," Brent Sutter, Phaneuf's boss in Red Deer during his junior career, told the Calgary Herald. "The biggest thing for him is, he's got to be able to raise his intensity to what playoff hockey is like in the National Hockey League.
"It goes to a whole different level again and Dion's got to be able to match that. I guess that's going to be the challenge for him."
Meeting challenges is something Phaneuf has done with unerring regularity the last six months. Now, if only he could pick up his PR game a little.
"I'm excited," he said when asked about the upcoming playoffs, looking as if someone was forcing him to sit though the entire collection of "Lawrence Welk Show" DVDs.
The wild card in the deck, oddly enough, is Iginla.
The 2002 Hart Trophy finalist is coming off the quietest 35-goal season in memory. The captain so physically dominant, so compelling during the 2004 playoff run (his Game 7 performance against Vancouver moved coach Darryl Sutter, loath to throw around compliments, to call it the best he'd ever seen in a playoff game), hasn't recaptured the same zest, the same relentlessly fury. It's flashed, intermittently, this season. What the Flames are banking on is that the spark of playoff hockey will spur their captain on.
"You can't simulate playoffs," Iginla said. "It's the best time of the year. The intensity rises. The whole city gets behind you. Of course, you want to raise your game, make the difference. I know I do."
Those in the dressing room don't seem in the least concerned.
"He's the face of our franchise, our leader," Darren McCarty said. "He sets the tone and we follow. People say Iggy hasn't had such a great season? Look at where we finished. That's what matters to him. He's become a better all-around player because that's what we needed from him. I've been involved with a lot of great leaders during my career, and this guy is one of them.
"You want to see Iggy as his best. Playoff time is here. Just watch."
So much has changed for the Calgary Flames entering these playoffs. They aren't the feel-good, prohibitive-underdog, forgotten-kid-under-the-stairs of two years ago (although Sutter continues to play that hand with regular monotony). The Magical Mystery Tour of 2004 is over. They come in as Northwest Division champions, Jennings Trophy winners, holders of home-ice advantage for at least the first round.
They are in the sense, the hunted now, not the hunters.
It can't be the same. But who knows? It has a chance to be even better.
"Magic comes in different forms, different bottles," lectured McCarty, a three-time Cup winner with the Wings. "All playoff runs are different. In Detroit, '97's was different than '98's. And '02 was different than either of those.
"People around here got a taste of the magic two years ago. It was a special time. The Red Mile. The unexpected aspect it'd been so long since the team was even in the playoffs. But you can't recapture magic. That's what makes it special in the first place.
"What we have to do is create a magic of our own."
A magic conjured up by a couple of proven sorcerers, and their uncompromising new apprentice.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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