Phillips, Wranglers eyeing more this spring

Photo: David Moll

📝 by Patrick Williams

Win or lose, Matthew Phillips knew that the Calgary Wranglers would need to have short memories against the Coachella Valley Firebirds going into the Pacific Division finals.

Especially in a best-of-five series between the two heavyweights. And especially when the series opened with games on back-to-back nights.

“It’s such a short series,” Phillips said earlier this week, “that you need to have a quick memory, need to get over games quickly, and move on to the next one.”

The Wranglers did plenty of winning during their first season in Calgary, leading the AHL in victories (51) and points (106) to capture the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular-season champion.

But the Calder Cup Playoffs are a different animal.

Phillips and many of his teammates had a long postseason run a year ago when the Stockton Heat, the Calgary Flames’ former AHL affiliate, pushed the Chicago Wolves to Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. Four of the six games against the eventual Calder Cup champion Wolves were one-goal decisions, and three of them went to overtime.

And they have already gone through their share of challenges this spring, beginning with a four-game ordeal against the Abbotsford Canucks in which each game was decided by a single goal and the Wranglers twice needed overtime to win. Abbotsford’s grinding, physical style never relented against the Wranglers, and the Canucks made containing Phillips a top priority.

Calgary’s reward for eliminating Abbotsford is a best-of-five series against Coachella Valley, which finished second to the Wranglers in both the Pacific Division and the overall league standings. The Firebirds buried the Wranglers under three goals early in Game 1 en route to a 6-3 victory; Calgary bounced back with a 3-2 win last night to level the series.

At 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, Phillips manages to play well beyond his size. He will drive the net fearlessly, play in difficult areas of the ice, and mix it up repeatedly with opponents. His 36 goals during the regular season ranked second in the AHL, and he finished with 76 points in 66 games. He went to the AHL All-Star Classic this season and was voted a First Team AHL All-Star.

After missing most of Game 1 against Abbotsford following a first-period ejection, Phillips has tallied six points in the last five games. He believes that the Wranglers stand to benefit from some adversity.

“Having gotten through that (the Canucks series) builds a little bit of experience for guys on our team that haven’t been there before,” Phillips said.

In Coachella Valley, the Wranglers are facing an opponent that has been through its own playoff tests. The Firebirds have already faced elimination three times, fighting off Tucson and Colorado to reach the division finals.

If the Wranglers want to improve on last postseason’s run, they will need to figure out a solution quickly. It’s a short series against the Firebirds, and the last three games will all be on the road.

“The big thing that we took from last year is that it takes every single guy to be ready and to contribute,” Phillips explained. “We had guys miss games last year for various reasons, and [other] guys had to be elevated in the lineup and play in spots that they normally didn’t. Everyone helped.

“We know that it takes a full roster and just how much of a fine line it is between winning and losing.”