OTTAWA (CP) - First overall picks rarely fly under the radar but somehow Ottawa Senators defenceman Chris Phillips has managed to do just that for most of his career.
Wade Redden was the more celebrated young blue-liner. Zdeno Chara was the big stud when he was here. Phillips, picked first overall in the 1996 NHL entry draft, never got the same recognition league-wide.
That's changing this season. The 29-year-old Calgary native has teamed up with Anton Volchenkov to form Ottawa's top shutdown pair, and hockey fans across the country found out in Wednesday night's opening playoff win over the Pittsburgh Penguins just what Phillips is about after he helped limit Sidney Crosby's scoring chances.
"When we had Chara I think Chris got a bit of the shadow there," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said Thursday after practice. "And I don't think he minds that. But we know how valuable he is. And now that we are on the big stage, more people will find that out as well."
All the more reason for the Senators to lock him up before his stock rose in the playoffs. Slated to be an unrestricted free agent July 1, the 6-3, 216-pound Phillips would have been a highly sought-after commodity. Instead, he re-signed with the only NHL club he's ever played for. At US$14 million over four years, one could argue he also gave the Sens the hometown discount at $3.5 million a year, particularly given some of the new deals signed this season - most notably Eric Brewer's $4.25-million a year deal in St. Louis.
"For myself and my family, we're excited about being able to spend another four years here," said Phillips, whose deal also includes a no-move clause. "I've been here a long time, I love it here in this city. And I want to be part of the puzzle that brings success to the city with the Senators."
That's been a common theme with the Senators, core players not wanting to jump ship despite the playoff disappointments year after year. Alfredsson signed a long-term deal before the lockout, Redden could have walked away last summer but stayed on, and now Phillips has done the same.
"We've had some great teams here over the past few seasons but were unable to get the job done," Phillips said. "I want to be part of the solution that can enjoy just how much fun for this team and this city to win a championship."
That kind of loyalty rubs off in the dressing room.
"That's exciting for all the guys here, those are character, core guys that you want to build your team around," said centre Mike Fisher. "That says a lot about the city and the organization. Guys want to stay here. We're treated well."
On the ice, Chara's departure last summer gave Phillips a chance to play a bigger role. He responded with a career year, his plus-36 rating the most telling statistic.
"Chris has stepped up," head coach Bryan Murray said. "He's a good man, a good leader, really cares about the team. I think it's obvious with him signing the deal."
His task in this series is no small one, shutting down Crosby's top line. Sid the Kid was limited to three shots on goal in Game 1 and a late power-play marker with the game no longer in doubt. The score should read Phillips 1, Crosby 0.
Game 2 goes Saturday 3 p.m. ET.
"He still showed up on the scoresheet so that's what makes him so good," Phillips said of Crosby. "It's just about trying to take away his time and space. It's not just myself and Anton, it's the three forwards playing out there at the same time as well. He's too good a player not to get chances but we just want to try and limit them."
Crosby was anticipating the matchup. After all, he's had to face that all his life.
"Ever since I can remember it's been like that," said the Penguins superstar. "That's a challenge you deal with each night. A lot of times that's the fun part about playing. When you play against bigger, physical guys on defence you get punished a little bit more but the fun part is having to adjust, having to make plays to get around that.
"At the end of the night it's rewarding if you're able to create things and make those plays to help your team win, especially when you're being tested that way."
Senators forward Patrick Eaves has seen Phillips make life hell for many a star player this season.
"He's a guy you love to have on your team and you would hate to play against," Eaves said. "He's so big, always in position and he's strong. He understands the game.
"A lot of people didn't know about him but hopefully now they do."