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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Pro Hockey Debut: Little Matthew Phillips Making a Big Impression in Stockton

Matthew Phillips in AHL playoff action. (Photo by Jack Lima)

He got his chance and Matthew Phillips nailed the audition.

As a result, the exciting Flames prospect has landed a supporting role in the Stockton Heat’s pursuit of the Calder Cup.

Ten days ago when Calgary’s American Hockey League affiliate clinched a playoff spot with one game remaining in the regular season, it presented an opportunity for Phillips, who turned 19 earlier this month.

With forward mainstays Mark Jankowski, Linden Vey and captain Mike Angelidis all given the finale off to get some extra rest ahead of the playoffs, Phillips got his chance to strut his stuff for Ryan Huska and the rest of his coaching staff.

“I thought that game against Tucson, I played pretty well,” says Phillips, who had an assist and four shots that night. “I worked hard and just tried to play the same game I’ve been playing my whole life.”

His debut came nine days after he arrived in northern California from Victoria on an amateur try-out (ATO) after his WHL season came to an end.

“It worked out well. I had a chance to get here, practice for a week, watch four games and get a better idea for the system and the level of play, so that was good,” says Phillips, a Calgary kid who played two years of bantam and two years of midget for the Calgary Buffalo Hockey Association.

“I felt a lot more comfortable before I even stepped on the ice. It was fun to get out there and see what it's like. It's definitely a whole lot faster than it looks from the press box.”


Seizing the Opportunity

While a meaningless game in the standings, it wasn’t for Phillips, who made the most of his opportunity to play by impressing the right people.

“He handled himself very well and gave us the confidence that we could go to him in a playoff situation,” says Huska.

It wasn't a first impression, mind you. Huska had the chance to coach him at the Young Stars rookie tournament in Penticton.

"In September, I think everybody at first was like oh wow, he is an undersized player, for sure," recalls Huska. "But you saw what he could do and how he always came out of scrums with the puck.

"For me, I was interested to see how he would do against the bigger, older players that we have here. The first couple practices, you paid attention to him to see how he's doing and he fit in fine. I go to the instinct where he's had to learn how to survive being a smaller guy. He understands how to use his body the right way, he understands how to position himself and he has the good work habits. After a few days here in practice, our players were comfortable with him and our staff as well."


Post-Season Beckons

Fast forward to last weekend and when scrappy forward Ryan Lomberg got banged up in the Heat’s 4-0 loss to San Jose in game 1, that created an opening.

Sure enough, it was Calgary's sixth round pick in 2016 that got the tap.

“Probably a little bit surprised to find out I was playing game two but it was great," Phillips says. "It was awesome that they showed that trust to dress me for that game."

While his line with Linden Vey and Morgan Klimchuk didn’t factor in the scoring, the Heat beat San Jose 5-3 at SAP Center to even the best-of-five series 1-1. Games three and four against the Barracuda go this Friday and Sunday in Stockton.

“We knew he was a guy that can generate some offence,” says Huska. “When you watch his game, because he is smaller, he understands where he should be on the ice. More often than not, positionally he's very sound.

“The other thing we noticed in short order with him is he's very direct in his play. If he loses the puck, he's stopping on it. He makes sure he comes back to get it quickly and doesn't go for the big skate.”


Short Remarks

Short order? While no pun was intended on this occasion, there has been the occasional quip about Phillips’ height which is something he has 'grown' used to.

“There have obviously been a few very hilarious jokes about how I'm one of the players’ sons or little brothers,” says Phillips with a sarcastic yet good-natured chuckle. “But I expected that. It's been good. First few days were a bit different, coming into a pro room where there are guys more than 10 years older than me, but I can't say enough good things.”

Does the 5-foot-6 right winger ever hear any new material at this point?

“Some guys get a little more creative than others, but it's all pretty similar,” he laughs.

After being ousted by Everett in the WHL playoffs in a game six that took a gut-wrenching and league-record five overtimes to decide (“It just went on and on and I thought nobody was ever going to score a goal.”), Phillips says the opportunity to continue playing – after first taking a few days to rest and re-charge -- was welcomed news when he got the call from Flames assistant GM Brad Pascall.

“It was disappointing to lose out but this is the type of thing that you look forward to, getting a good feel for pro hockey,” says Phillips.

Matthew Phillips, ready in the slot. (Photo by Jack Lima)


Preparing for the Next Level

Even just watching has been beneficial.

“I've never really had the experience of being a scratch and watching games from above. I've actually learned a lot from that,” says Phillips.

As a 1998 year of birth, he’s not eligible to play in the American Hockey League until 2018-19. Nonetheless, this stint -- however long it lasts – will help him know what lies ahead in 18 months time.

“(Jankowski) also did it and the next year he transitioned really well to this level,” Phillips points out. “You're curious what the next level is like and it's awesome that I'm getting the chance to experience it. Now the mystery is gone.”

While Huska says he hopes to get Lomberg back for game three, Klimchuk’s condition is uncertain for Friday night. He left Sunday’s game with an upper body injury.

Advanced notice or short notice, you know that Phillips will be ready to go if needed.

“If I get to play again, the more I play, the more comfortable I'll get,” he says.

Heck, if Phillips keeps impressing everyone like he has, forget about a supporting role for the 50-goal scorer this season, a starring role might be in the offing.



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.

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6 comments:

  1. so excited for this kid, he will be a good player in the future

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    1. He will be a great player in the future, I'm just not convinced it will be in the NHL. He is small. Johnny Gaudreau would tower over him. He'll entertain and wow fans for a few years in the AHL but will he make it to the NHL? I sure hope so, I love the underdog, undersized, feel-good story. But getting to that top level is going to be a steep, steep climb.

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    2. Agreed it is a very steep climb, but now it seems like more and more smaller players are making the NHL cause it is turning into a speed game. I agree soon this guy will be tearing it up in the AHL. I would love to see him in the NHL, I think it could happen, but like you said it would be a very, very steep climb

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  2. So if he is 20 is he considered an overage player in the WHL for the 2017-18 season? If he is an overage player why wouldn't he be eligible for the AHL?

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    1. Total typo, thank you for catching that. He just turned 19, not 20. That's my error entirely. Sorry to mislead and confuse.

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    2. No worries Darren! Does he have a shot at team Canada for the WJC?

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