Joining a new team during the season is always a whirlwind, but for Matthew Phillips, his start with the Penguins has been especially memorable.

The 25-year-old was claimed off of waivers on Friday from the Capitals and quickly made his way to Pittsburgh for practice on Saturday. It wasn’t an ordinary first practice, as Phillips dressed a few stalls down from Jaromir Jagr, who went out with the team in front of a packed UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex as part of the Celebrate 68 festivities.

“I think they threw just about everything at me today as far as fans and Jagr and all that,” Phillips said with a laugh. “But, I mean, it was pretty cool. I know not many people were watching me out there.”

The next night, Phillips made his Penguins debut after the ceremony to raise Jagr’s jersey to the rafters. After trying to find his way in a chaotic warmup session where everybody wore No. 68 in Jagr’s honor, Phillips logged exactly 11 minutes of ice time in the 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

“It was a pretty crazy day, for sure,” Phillips said. “The whole warmup thing was a pretty surreal experience. Honestly, I didn't really know what was going on the whole time. It was kind of funny. But yeah, it was good. And the game went pretty well overall, and obviously, it's disappointing to lose. But, I felt more comfortable as it went on, so it's good."

Phillips speaks with the media

This marks Phillip’s first extended stint in the NHL, playing 27 games with the Capitals before arriving in Pittsburgh. Prior to that, Phillips excelled at the AHL level, recording 237 points (103G-134A) in 265 AHL games. “He's a top-ten scorer (in the minors). He's averaging 35-plus goals in the last couple of seasons,” Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan said.

Listed at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, Phillips prides himself on constantly playing with speed and pace. “As an undersized guy, I need to have my feet moving all the time,” he said.

Phillips has already impressed the coaching staff with his approach.

“I think he's a brave guy the way he plays the game,” Sullivan said. “He's willing to go to the battle areas, even though he's undersized. I think he's real elusive in a tight space. He gets underneath people. He's quick. So, I think he has the ability to help us offensively and generate some offense. I know that's one of the reasons why we acquired him, and we're going to give him an opportunity to do so.”

After playing on the third line with Jesse Puljujarvi and Lars Eller on Sunday, Phillips moved up to the right wing alongside Evgeni Malkin and Drew O’Connor. Phillips was also on a power-play unit alongside Kris Letang, Malkin, Carter, and Smith.

"You try not to overthink it,” Phillips said of skating with Malkin. “I had a good experience in Washington with a lot of superstars there, and you're a little starstruck for the first little while. And then you got to just understand you're here for a reason, too, and work together. And obviously, he's a world-class player and can learn a lot from him and just do my best to have success."

Phillips skating with Malkin was just one of the changes at today’s practice going into Tuesday's Metro Division matchup with the New York Islanders, following a stretch where Pittsburgh - fighting for its playoff life - has lost three of four. They scored just five goals in those three setbacks, with Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust carrying the majority of the offense. In those four games overall – including a 4-1 win over Chicago – they’ve combined for seven of the Penguins’ nine goals.

“We are trying to find the right combinations. I think we’ve been very patient with a lot of them up until this point. We are not getting the traction that lives up to our expectations,” Sullivan said. “So, change is inevitable. That’s why we made the decisions we made today. Balance is an important aspect of winning in this league. It’s hard to rely on one line, it’s hard to rely on one defense pair to get it done every night.”

This is the workflow Pittsburgh used…









In addition to Phillips skating with Malkin and Valtteri Puustinen slotting in up top for Puljujarvi, every defense pair got tweaked. The biggest adjustment was P.O Joseph practicing alongside Kris Letang after being a healthy scratch for two of the last three.

“I think it's maybe an opportunity for guys to have bigger roles, different roles, play with different linemen,” Letang said. “But, we want to spark something. We want to get out of the funk that we're in, that winning one, losing one. We want to string some together, so we're trying to mix it up and spark something. I think that's the message."

"We're all trying to win… no one in this room cares if they’re in the top six, top four, first power play, second power play, whatever it is," Ryan Graves said. "I mean, guys care about that, for sure, but we care about winning more than we care about that."