Penguins Hoping Phillips Comes Up Big for Their Offense

Shortly before 2 p.m. Friday, Matthew Phillips was a spare part with the Washington Capitals, with only the formality of clearing waivers appearing to separate him from a trip to the American Hockey League.

Minutes later, his itinerary — and his life — changed.

By 11 p.m., he was in a new town, working for a new team.

And a little more than 12 hours after that, Phillips was on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third line and their No. 2 power play, during a practice that, for the first 15 minutes, included the fabled Jaromir Jagr. To say nothing of Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang, among others.

“It was pretty cool,” Phillips said. “I know not many people were watching me out there.”

Well, Mike Sullivan and the rest of the coaching staff surely were, because they seem intent on keeping him in the fairly prominent roles he filled during that workout when the Penguins face Los Angeles Sunday at 6:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.

“If I get a chance to play in those spots, that’s awesome,” Phillips said.

Although Phillips’ NHL resume is pretty thin — he has one goal in 30 games, 27 of those with the Capitals this season — Sullivan professed to be impressed by his offensive output in the American Hockey League, where Phillips put up 36 goals with Calgary’s farm team last season and 31 in 2021-22.

“He’s a guy who has a pretty impressive body of work, certainly, at the American League level,” Sullivan said. “He’s a top-10 scorer. … He’s pretty elusive with the puck. He’s shown an ability to be very good on the power play. Those are strengths of his game.”

Size isn’t likely to turn up on that list of assets, because he is the Penguins’ shortest (5-foot-9) and lightest (160 pounds) player.

Nonetheless, he said that, “I like to think I play a little bigger than I am,” and he does have a reputation for not being shy about operating in high-traffic areas.

Sullivan noted that Phillips will be compelled to contribute at both ends of the ice — “Regardless of what your role is or where you play in our lineup, there’s an expectation that we’re going to play on both sides of the puck,” he said — but if Phillips is to have a positive impact, it figures to be primarily in the attacking zone.

Despite fielding a lineup that features some of the top point-producers in recent NHL history, the Pittsburgh Penguins are averaging just 2.90 goals per game, leaving them 25th in the league. How much a guy who has spent most of his career in the minors can do to improve that isn’t clear, but Sullivan believes he merits a chance to try.

“He’s shown a capacity to generate offense, drive offense, both on the power play and 5-on-5,” Sullivan said. “He’s been one of the top offensive producers at the American League level the last couple of seasons. … I don’t have any reservations at all about giving him an opportunity to do what he does best.”

Some of the Penguins’ offensive failings can be attributed to their power play, which has converted a meager 13.5 percent of its chances to rank 30th in the NHL. How much Phillips will be able to help that as a member of the No. 2 unit — which also included Jeff Carter, Reilly Smith, Eller and Kris Letang during Saturday’s workout — remains to be seen, but that duty will be nothing new to him.

“The power play is something I’ve been lucky enough to be part of my whole career,” he said. “It’s something I like to do.”

Phillips just signed with Washington as a free agent last summer, but was with the Capitals long enough to appreciate their rivalry with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“To just kind of flip to the other side of the rivalry overnight, essentially, it’s pretty interesting,” he said. “But it’s a very cool experience for me. I’m honored that they felt the need to take a chance on me. I want to make the most of it here.”

Which is precisely what the Penguins need for him to do.

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