Wranglers fight back against punishing Canucks physicality in thrilling Game 2 win
Photo credit:David Moll / Calgary Wranglers
By Mike Gould7 months ago
The Calgary Wranglers may now lead the Abbotsford Canucks two games to none in their best-of-five AHL Pacific Division semifinal playoff series, but, against all odds, that match-up has been overshadowed by the on-ice battle between a pair of unlikely individual combatants.
Standing six-foot-even and weighing in at just 198 pounds, Canucks defenceman Jett Woo isn’t exactly the most physically imposing player in the notoriously rough-and-tumble AHL. But he towers over star Wranglers winger Matthew Phillips, who, at five-foot-eight, was the third-shortest skater to play NHL games during the 2022–23 regular season.
Phillips and Woo have been jawing at each other since the start of Game 1. The two battled in front of the Abbotsford net for a long stretch of play in the first period of Wednesday’s series opener, culminating in Phillips spearing Woo in the groin — and earning himself an early trip to the showers. Following an automatic review, the AHL opted against dishing out any further discipline for the play.
The battle continued into Game 2, with Phillips and Woo involved in nearly every single post-whistle scrum throughout the pivotal contest. Phillips had to be helped off the ice during the second period after being leveled along the boards by Woo — Wranglers forward Dryden Hunt later described it as a “dirty hit” — but he quickly returned without missing a shift.
Instead of waiting for one of his more formidable teammates to send a message and shift the momentum — much needed after the Wranglers entered the second intermission down 1–0 — Phillips elected to take matters into his own hands.
The Calgary product, who finished second in the AHL with 36 goals in the regular season, threw a couple of hits (most notably targeting Alex Kannok-Liepert with a big one in the second period) before factoring in on both the game-tying and game-winning goals in a 4–3, come-from-behind victory at the Saddledome.
“Honestly, you could argue he’s our most physical guy almost every night,” Wranglers centre Ben Jones said of Phillips, his most common winger all season. “He kind of throws his body around like a bowling ball and it’s quite impressive how he hangs in there.”
Although neither of his points on Friday came from in close, Phillips has developed a strong reputation during his time in the AHL as a player who is unafraid of initiating contact and going to the dirty areas to be effective.
“If you watched all his goals this year, I would say probably 70 percent of them are around the net,” Wranglers head coach Mitch Love said. “I don’t care what level you’re at, that’s where you’ve got to go. He’s a courageous little guy and it never ceases to amaze me.”
Phillips put his deceptive shot to good use to beat Canucks goaltender Arturs Silovs from distance for the overtime winner in Friday’s thrilling Wranglers win. The 25-year-old winger tied an AHL record with 15 game-winning goals in the regular season; his deciding tally in Game 2 was also his first-ever playoff overtime goal since turning pro in 2018.
Phillips wasn’t the only Wrangler to feel the brunt of the Canucks’ hard-hitting style of play in Game 2. AHL sophomore Jakob Pelletier missed part of the second period after being on the receiving end of an unnecessary cross-check from Canucks winger Nils Höglander.
Pelletier returned to the Wranglers’ bench in time for the start of the third period. Höglander took four minor penalties on Friday, including a tripping infraction in overtime which led to Phillips’ game-winning power-play goal.
A raucous crowd of 8,029 (a new Wranglers record) filled the Saddledome to watch playoff hockey in Calgary, now a rarity with the Flames and Hitmen both out of the running for their respective league championships. New for the AHL playoffs: Wranglers player T-shirts for sale with “Wolf,” “Zary,” “Phillips,” and “Pelletier” on the back, as well as free pom-poms for the first 5,000 fans in attendance.
Friday’s Wranglers playoff contest was a lively affair on and off the ice, particularly compared to the dour atmosphere inside the Saddledome for the final few Flames games of the season. This city has been waiting for a young, energetic hockey team with legitimate championship aspirations, and the Wranglers are just that. As they go further, the crowds will become larger.
Naturally, the Wranglers players recognized as the first and second stars of Game 2 both have strong ties to the city. Phillips, the first star, was born and raised in Calgary; Hunt, named the second star after scoring the game-tying goal in the third period, already owned a home here before being traded to the Flames in March.
Hunt converted off a feed from Phillips to draw the Wranglers even at the 5:48 mark of the third period. Neither player was shy about expressing what it means to them to play intense games in front of huge crowds at the Saddledome — and, owing to the AHL’s unusual playoff format, the Wranglers will only be able to play at home again by advancing to the next round.
“I think my first regular-season game here was, like, on a Tuesday,” Hunt said with a wry smile (and he was right: 3,536 fans attended his first home game with the Wranglers, a 5–2 win over Colorado on Tuesday, March 7). “I was a little worried, but it’s gotten way better every game. Tonight was pretty special, to see everyone come out and support us — not many teams are playing right now in Calgary.”
For Phillips, a 2016 Flames draft pick staring down the prospect of hitting unrestricted free agency in two months, this playoff run might just represent his final chance to represent his home city before leaving for greener pastures (read: more NHL playing time).
It isn’t yet time for Phillips to make any decisions on his future or reflect on his tenure in the Flames organization, but, if this is the end for him in Calgary, he’s determined to make the most of it.
“It’s great, kind of like a pinch myself-type thing,” Phillips said. “Playoff game, this type of atmosphere, against Vancouver, Canadian match-up … it’s just tons of fun. Just trying to soak it all in.”
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