TORONTO – Dion Phaneuf needed a minute, but settled for less.
“Just 30 seconds,” he pleaded from his dressing room stall. “Thank you.” There was no room to move in the crowd that had formed around the new Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman after Tuesday night’s game. Brutally physical on the ice and chatty in the dressing room between periods, Phaneuf helped lead the beleaguered franchise to a 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils in his debut performance, snapping a six-game winless streak in the process.
“It was a great honour to put this jersey on tonight and to be a part of this organization,” he said. “And the fans were unbelievable. To be on this side and playing in front of them wearing this jersey, it meant a lot to me. It was a very special game in my career.”
It was a good night for the whole team, which general manager Brian Burke had remodelled in a flurry of activity over the weekend. Some of the greatest contributions were made by new players, led by Phaneuf, forward Fredrik Sjostrom and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Giguere finished with 30 saves, becoming only the second goaltender in team history to record a shutout in his debut. Ed Belfour was the first, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-0 on Oct. 10, 2002.
“It was a good result,” Giguere said. “But I think, you know, since I’ve come here, over the last 48 hours, I really like what I’ve seen from the rest of the team. Everybody’s really focused. Everybody’s working really hard. Tonight, you could tell.”
Burke acquired Phaneuf and Sjostrom from the Calgary Flames on Sunday, sending longtime Leaf Matt Stajan to Alberta with forwards Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers and defenceman Ian White. Burke then landed Giguere from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for underperforming winger Jason Blake and underwhelming goaltender Vesa Toskala.
More changes could be expected, with Burke having proclaimed the team was still open for business. There are a handful of moves that could be made, with speculation swirling around veteran forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, to name one.
“I’m not worried, it’s just the business,” Ponikarovsky said. “If you get traded, that’s the way it is. I just want to play hockey and have fun.”
Fun is not a word that had been associated with the Leafs this year. Toronto followed an overtime loss in New Jersey on Friday with a soul-crushing defeat at home to Vancouver on Saturday, surrendering a three-goal first period lead en route to a 5-3 loss.
The team got off to another quick start on Tuesday, helped in no small part by one of the players acquired over the weekend. Forward Nikolai Kulemin gave the Leafs a 1-0 lead when he buried a Sjostrom rebound behind New Jersey goaltender Yann Danis.
Danis was making his first start since Nov. 21, giving star Martin Brodeur a rare night off. Brodeur, the likely starter for Canada’s Olympic team in Vancouver, had appeared in 40 consecutive games – and had become only the second goaltender in NHL history to play in 15 or more games in consecutive months.
Phaneuf gave the crowd its second thrill of the game when he fought Devils defenceman Colin White. The Air Canada Centre roared as Phaneuf skated to the box, chewing on his mouth guard as the beleaguered fan base’s new favourite.
“He’s gung-ho, seems to love hockey, and it rubs off on everybody,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “We could hear him talking in between periods from the coach’s office, which is almost two rooms away and three doorways. And you could hear him the whole time in between periods.”
Phil Kessel gave the home side a 2-0 lead two minutes in the second when he popped an inviting rebound past a helpless backup goaltender. Toronto went up 3-0 when Francois Beauchemin collected a pass in his skates and ripped a shot through Danis from the blue-line.
Phaneuf was hit in the leg by a shot late in the third period, but made it to the bench and did not miss a shift.
“They’re better defensively, you can tell,” Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said. “They’ve got great shooters on the point and you could see it tonight, they got some great shots.”
NOTES: Even though defenceman Paul Martin (broken arm) withdrew from the U.S. Olympic team on Monday, the Devils are still set to send five players to Vancouver: Brodeur (Canada), defenceman Johnny Oduya (Sweden) and forwards Patrik Elias (Czech Republic), Zach Parise (USA) and Jamie Langenbrunner (USA). … Ponikarovsky and Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson were awarded the Molson Cup for January in a pre-game ceremony. … Phaneuf finished the first period of his Toronto debut with 5:11 of ice time – and a five minute penalty.