With veteran defensemen Jarred Tinordi (on IR — oblique) and Nikita Zaitsev (non-roster — personal) not available for Thursday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Blackhawks inserted Isaak Phillips into the lineup. He finally got a good chance to impress, and he took advantage.
Phillips skated 17:02 in the game, including 1:18 short-handed. He was credited with one blocked shot and one hit, but he was one of only two defensemen who weren’t minus-one in the game (Alex Vlasic was plus-one).
He came into the game skating on the right side — his off-side — of the third defensive pair with rookie Wyatt Kaiser. But a parade of penalties, including three called on Kaiser, led to a lot of mixing with the defensemen on the ice. Phillips didn’t miss a beat, no matter which partner he had on the ice with him.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Phillips was on the ice for 10 Blackhawks’ shot attempts in 15:43 at even strength — as many as Kevin Korchinski (in 14:48 at even strength) and one fewer than Seth Jones (in 18:31). Those ten shot attempts at even strength were second-most on the entire Blackhawks roster.
Even though he was only credited with the one hit, he played a strong, physical game.
After the game, I asked head coach Luke Richardson what he thought of Phillips’ performance.
“I thought he was very strong tonight,” Richardson said after the game. “I thought he was aggressive, not just in front of the net or scrums and that, but his play. He had a good gap, shot the puck really nice once in the first period, I think off the face-off, which we asked our D to start to do and even in the neutral zone, he had a good gap and we’d go right across when we hit a good backcheck through there. I thought he was very aggressive all night, so that was a really good sign. He kept it simple in his skill set and very aggressive, so that’s good.”
This is a great opportunity for Phillips to show what he brings to the table and let the coaches know he deserves to be in the NHL full-time. It sounds like Tinordi is going to miss a fair amount of time; Richardson said Wednesday that neither he nor Andreas Athanasiou are skating yet. And the Blackhawks have been understandably reluctant to put Zaitsev in the lineup (he’s not good).
Over the summer, I advocated for Phillips to make the NHL roster out of camp to the point that I would have preferred the Blackhawks buy Zaitsev out. The organization opted to keep Zaitsev and allow Kaiser to work through his growing pains at the NHL level while Phillips played consistently heavy minutes for Rockford on his off-side against AHL competition. Getting more comfortable on the right side provides more versatility to the coaches, increasing his value to the club.
Hopefully he gets a couple more chances this weekend to show what he can do and continues to show that he’s worthy of a roster spot with the NHL team. He appeared in 16 games last year and produced five points for the Blackhawks and has already exceeded what many thought he would be after he was selected in the fifth round (No. 141 overall) by the Hawks in the 2020 NHL Draft. He has the size, skating ability and instincts to help the NHL team on the back end.
And, if Thursday night is any indication, Phillips is ready to take advantage of his opportunity.