1998 playoff triumph still tops with Phillips
The big blueliner joined the Ottawa Senators in 1997-98, just as the franchise was beginning its ascent toward élite status in the National Hockey League.
“Knock on wood, but I haven’t missed the playoffs yet being here,” said the veteran defenceman, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1996 NHL entry draft.
Phillips has watched a team evolve from one that had to play it close to the vest during its early days of success to one that now puts a dynamic product on the ice every season.
“The first couple of years, it was more of a defensive style,” said Phillips, 29, who currently shares the shutdown role on the Sens’ blue line with Anton Volchenkov. “We were winning games 2-1, 1-0… we had some unbelievable streaks, winning those close games, hanging on, with a bunch of guys who really worked hard. We had a lot of character and we were successful that way.
“But we’re in a time now where, the last couple of years, every time we’ve stepped on the ice, we’ve expected to win and score goals and be an exciting team. It’s been a lot of fun.”
What still ranks as one of the most exhilarating nights in Senators modern-franchise history came during Phillips’ rookie season. That’s the year an upstart Ottawa team, seeded eighth in the Eastern Conference playoffs, slayed the top-seeded New Jersey Devils in six games in an opening round shocker.
The Corel Centre rocked the night the Sens polished off the stunning victory like never before. Maybe even like never since, said Phillips.
“Eight beating No. 1. It really was unbelievable,” Phillips said in recalling the Senators’ first playoff series triumph. “When Igor Kravchuk scored the empty-net goal in Game 6 (to clinch the upset), that may arguably be the loudest I’ve ever heard it, even with the playoff run last year.
“I’ll never forget driving downtown afterward, and it was almost like a parade downtown. People were hanging out of cars. It was almost like we won the Stanley Cup.”
Given that response, Phillips was hardly surprised last spring, when the city exploded with joy as the Sens marched to their first Cup final.
It was quite the ride for a veterans like Phillips, too, and it reminded him once more why Ottawa is special in his heart. His wife, Erin, is an Ottawa girl, and they and their three young children live in the capital year round.
“It’s just a great city to raise our kids,” he said. “I’m pretty fortunate where I was drafted and with the way it’s turned out here.”