Small in stature but big on the scoresheet, Matthew Phillips isn’t sneaking up on people anymore.
Now in his second professional season, the Flames’ sixth pick in the 2016 NHL draft has made the leap from under-the-radar threat to nightly contributor, on pace to shatter his rookie scoring stats.
The saying goes numbers never lie.
In Phillips’ case, that mantra rings true.
He skates into Wednesday’s game as Stockton’s team leader with 21 points. He boasts the most assists on the team with 14, and is tied for fourth with seven goals.
League-wide, Phillips is tied for 13th in the points department – the third-youngest player on that list, senior to only Belleville’s Drake Batherson and Chicago’s Lucas Elvenes.
The difference for Phillips, this season, has come in the details. He’s always had the skill, always had the junkyard-dog mindset and work ethic to grind without flinching, and he’s always been able to fly on his skates.
Heat head coach Cail MacLean attributes the increased production to some hard-earned savvy and belief that have been added to Phillips’ elbow grease.
“He’s always been good with his (hockey) sense,” said Stockton’s bench boss. “There’s more strength in battles, but there’s also more confidence in those battles. He was relying more on his sneakiness last year. He’s still got sneakiness now, but he’s also got slipperiness. He can squeeze through holes whereas before he was stealing pucks, now he’s getting in there and making it to the other side.”
Phillips’ awareness on the ice has also been put on display this season, never moreso than in the Heat’s game-winning goal against the Colorado Eagles on Saturday. The forward saw an opportunity to pressure goalie Hunter Miska, who had left the cage to play a puck by the boards. The speedy winger stripped Miska of the puck and quickly turned his attention toward the slot, hitting a streaking Luke Philp with a great pass that led to a goal.
Looking strictly at the numbers, there’s an obvious difference in Phillips’ production from a year ago – the consistency factor. No sophomore slump to be found, Phillips has made his way onto the scoresheet in 15 of 20 games played. He has yet to go two-straight without scoring. He’s run up five points with two goals in Stockton’s last three outings.
“I pride myself on being consistent,” Phillips said. “If you just look at the points, sometimes you’ll have a tough game but get some points somehow. Some games you do a lot of things really well but the pucks just aren’t bouncing right. I pride myself on just being consistent, feeling good every day and doing the right things on and off the ice.”
His 200-foot game continues to come along and he’s always aiming to fine-tune the minutia that separates good from great, or in his case perhaps being No. 13 in the league to cracking the top 10.
“I expect that his work ethic will be second to none,” said MacLean on his night-in, night-out expectations. “That’s a staple of his game. I expect that he’ll be detailed with the puck in terms of playing a 200-foot game. I expect that he’ll find a way to possess the puck in open ice and create some offence.”
So far, Phillips has met those standards – and then some, by using his 5-foot-7 frame to the best of his ability.
“It’s something I’ve always been used to,” said Phillips. “I’ve always been the smallest guy on my team. You learn to play the game a certain way. It’s just how you know the game. What’s different is when you get into those corner battles it gets a little harder. Overall I just stick to what I’m used to.”
Fortunately for the Heat, off to a torrid 13-4-1-2 start, what Phillips is used to is scoring. It’s what he’s always done, from being a point-per-game player in his first season of WHL hockey to now clicking at that same pace in his second year pro. As roster attrition adds up with the inevitables of life at the Triple-A level, players coming and going due to injury or call-up, MacLean is comfortable leaning on the smallest player on his team to come up biggest.
“He’s shown that he can lead this team on a consistency basis,” said MacLean. “Can he put the team on his back from time to time and win the game? Without creating a lot of pressure, we feel confident in him. With some movement, he’s able to be in a more prominent position – get some overtime ice and more looks on the power play.
“Credit to him for taking advantage thus far.”