Flames staunch in defence of embattled star blueliner


Dion Phaneuf has delivered some hellacious hits--dutifully documented on YouTube --throughout his four-year National Hockey League career.


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Dion Phaneuf has delivered some hellacious hits--dutifully documented on YouTube --throughout his four-year National Hockey League career.

But none have proved as punishing as the whipping Phaneuf absorbs daily from his own constituents.

With the playoffs less than a week away, the Calgary Flames faithful blames the video game cover boy for everything from the shaky defence (23rd in the NHL) to the impotent power play (0-for-37, and counting.)

No word on whether Phaneuf is also responsible for the recession, oil-sands pollution and those annoying "speed on green" cameras lurking at intersections throughout this hockey-mad metropolis.

"People can say what they want," said centre Craig Conroy. "As a team, we're 100 per cent behind Dion. He's our best defenceman.

"We believe that going forward we're going to need him to be our best defenceman in that first round."

For good reason. NHL medical reports--especially with the playoffs on the horizon --are guarded as carefully as Barack Obama's travel itinerary in Iraq. But defenceman Robyn Regehr (lower body, possibly knee) and Cory Sarich (ankle) are not expected to return any time soon.

Phaneuf is also labouring with an undisclosed ailment.

"He's day to day," Keenan said Thursday after Phaneuf missed his second practice in a week.

A media type asked if the injury was of the upper-or lower-body variety.

"I didn't say he was injured," Keenan replied.

Still, Phaneuf's playing status is questionable with the Flames set to close out the regular season tonight starting with the front end of a home-and-home series against the Edmonton Oilers.

Flames general manager Darryl Sutter called up defenceman John Negrin from the minors Thursday and returned centre Warren Peters to Quad Cities, Ill. So conventional wisdom suggests Negrin is taking Phaneuf's spot on the blueline in Edmonton.

"We have some key guys out," said captain Jarome Iginla. "And we can't wait to get them back. But that's not our focus right now. We're hungry to finish this off."

The Flames can lock up the Northwest Division pennant-- and third place in the Western Conference--with back-to-back wins over their Alberta rivals.

And, once the playoffs start, the Flames need Phaneuf to step up with his best hockey of the season--especially if Regehr and Sarich are sidelined.

"Dion is crucial for us any time," Iginla said. "As far as I know, he's just out for maintenance. He'll be back for us.

"He plays so many minutes -- so many hard minutes. There aren't many people who can play the minutes he does, the way he does. Physically, he's in your face and all that stuff with all that energy. When he does get back, he'll be charged up."

On any given day, Phaneuf could get charged up--if he wanted to be masochistic-- by turning on the computer and reading the rants about his play.

In 80 games this season, Phaneuf has 11 goals and 47 points. His plus-minus rating sits is a mediocre minus-11.

Flames fans go wild over his penchant to pinch deep behind the opposition net and untimely giveaways that end up in his own goal.

"Maybe it's not up to every-one's expectations, but I still think Dion is having a good year," Conroy said. "He hits. He's physical. He works hard. He plays through injury. He's always positive in that dressing room."

At times, Phaneuf can seem superhuman in his ability to tune out the public criticism.

Behind closed doors, however, that's not always the case.

"He feels the weight of the world on his shoulders,"Conroy said. "I'm like, 'First of all, don't read the papers. Don't let people affect you. You've just got to go out and play. Who cares what happened this whole year, whether they say it's good or bad? I mean, you have more points than me, and you're a defenceman.

"So I'm like, 'It can't be that bad.' "

Judging by emails to this newspaper, the fans think it's that bad -- or worse -- for the former Norris Trophy nominee.

"I don't know if he reads the papers or not or listens to it," Keenan said. "But he logs a lot of ice time. He has all year for us."

Phaneuf is ranked fourth in the league with an average workload of 26 minutes and 31 seconds per night.

"He's a young guy at 23 years of age, and he's only going to be better and is getting better," Keenan said. "That's all you can ask for -- to have a young player like that embrace the ice time and be a factor in every game."

For better. Or worse.


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