Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Merlyn Phillips, NHL Playoff Goal Leader of 1926

Name some of the players over history to have led the NHL in playoff goals over the years, most likely it was a star like Gretzky, Lemieux, Kurri, Bossy, Lafleur to Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and The Rocket. One gentleman who led the league in playoff goals was far less well known. In 1926, Merlyn "Bill" Phillips of the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Maroons led the NHL with 3 goals in 4 games.

Merlyn Phillips was a 26 year old rookie in 1926 and was only called up to the Maroons with 12 games remaining in the season, but he made quite an early impact with the media and fans. He had spent the previous seven seasons playing Senior hockey with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds where he played in three Allan Cups. Prior to making the big club in 1926, Phillips had 9 goals in 20 games that season with the Soo. His introduction to professional hockey was chronicled by the Montreal Gazette starting on Feb. 18, 1926.

"Montreal will have Bill Phillips, former Soo Greyhound centre as a substitute tonight.
Phillips signed with the Maroons Tuesday afternoon...Phillips is a speedy skater, and is finished in style. He possesses a fair right-handed shot, and can be used at either centre or right wing."

Phillips failed to produce a point in that first game, but the next day's Gazette saw potential in his play. "Phillips' showing was closely watched in his first appearance in pro company. He made a favorable first impression...He plays an easy, finished style of hockey similar to Nelson Stewart, whom he under-studies....But the general first impression of the fans was that he would do. He works well in combination plays, passing unselfishly."

So, he's compared to the Maroons best player, Nels Stewart and the fans say "he would do". I love reading accounts of old time hockey when "combination play" is referred to. In current terminology, they're talking about simple passing plays, perhaps the odd give and go. Solo dashes were far more prevelant back in those days and successful passing plays were celebrated by the hockey watchers.

It took Merlyn Phillips a few weeks to become fully comfortable with the pro game and he finally hit his stride on March 11 against the New York Americans. The Gazette sports section featured a headline, "Phillips Starred as Montreal Beat New York Team 5-1". The accompanying article proclaimed, "Phillips flashed about the ice with easy strides, but with dazzling stickhandling efforts, and finally was rewarded by a goal scored on a lone effort, in which he went from end to end, lost the puck once, regained it from Randall and circled the American net to put the Maroons in the lead. Within three minutes he had put the Maroons two up by a swift move on a back pass from Broadbent. Thereafter he alternated in offensive and defensive play with much of the smoothness and cunning generally shown by Nelson Stewart, the Maroon's regular mid-ice player. Phillips poke-check was effective at all times, and he was on every loose puck. His work earned him loud acclaim, and at the end he was roundly cheered as he left the ice."

Once again his play is compared to Nels Stewart, and specific reference is made to his abilty to poke-check, a skill I thought more of as a goaltending skill. It's nice to see that 85 years ago writers and fans were sophisticated enough to recognize and applaud fine defensive play as well as offensive.

Two days later, Phillips was at it once again. "Following his excellent performance against New York, Phillips was equally effective against Canadiens. There were those who felt that the former Soo Greyhound had not met much opposition against the Americans and they wanted to see him pitted against rugged opposition. Opposed to Canadiens they saw him play even smarter hockey than against New York. He had speed, back-checked, poke-checked, scored once, made the opening for a second tally and incessantly started passing bouts with his teammates. He was pitted against Pete Lepine the latter another sub-player who is finished in his style. The result was a pleasing duel between these two clean-playing young stars, which provided one of the treats of the otherwise none too pleasant fray."

Once again, Phillips' defensive play is commended as well as his ability at the passing game. On the strength of those last two games Phillips finished the regular campaign with 3 goals and an assist over 12 games.

In the playoffs, Montreal met the Pittsburgh Pirates in a two game total goal series. The first game was won 3-1 by the Maroons with Phillips notching a goal. "Phillip's registered Maroon's third goal on a dazzling individual rush. He checked Conacher in the free zone and went worming through zigzag fashion to slam in a back-hander." Game two finished tied 3-3, giving Montreal the series win. Merlyn Phillips excelled once again for the Maroons. "Little more than five minutes after the start of the game Phillips cleared the puck from near the Montreal net. He swept down the left boards and circled Roger Smith at the Pirate defense. Close in on Worters, Phillips drove a back-handed shot at which he is an adept. Worters deflected the disc, but could not clear it fast enough. Phillips was down like a hawk and jammed the the rubber into the mesh."

Phillips "went worming through zigzag fashion". They just don't write like that anymore. Without the benefit of tevelvision broadcasts and video highlights, writers had to be far more descriptive and paint a visual image for the reader. Apparently Phillips had a nice little back-hand as well.

Phillips play at centre was solid enough to allow Maroon coach Eddie Gerard to play Nels Stewart on defense. Ths continued into the final round against the favoured Ottawa Senators. In game one, King Clancy tied the game up on a shorthanded goal with ten seconds remaining. The Gazette reported, "Stewart was on the defense and Phillips was at centre. The arrangement worked well and the Montrealers showed no signs of cracking under the strain of the heavy programme they have faced the past three weeks. Phillips was perhaps a little slow to find his feet. It was his first real test in a hard, gruelling match. But the former Soo amateur soon struck his stride and engaged in a pleasing duel with Frank Nighbor around centre ice. Phillips back-handed shot was always a threat to Ottawa."

Another reference to his proficiency with the back-hander. Another thing we don't see much any more is a "pleasing duel" between two players throughout a game. The Maroons managed to beat the Senators 1-0 in game two to take the series. Babe Seibert scored the only marker in the second and once again, Merlyn Phillips was one of the better players on the ice.

"Bill Phillips, who has been the sensation in the Maroon camp since he joined pro company one month ago after a Meteoric career with the Soo Greyhounds, was the bright performer for the Maroons. Phillips paved the way for Seibert's goal. He poked Frank Nighbor out of action and offensively was the pivot of many Maroon attacks. But it was Phillips' courage under a heavy gruelling which brought him the greatest commendation. He was a target throughout the game. He stood his bumps gamely and came back for more. In the second period he was knocked dizzy by a clout from Finnegan. He was relieved, but back in action within five minutes."

This pretty much sums up Merlyn Phllips and his rise from Senior hockey to a contributing regular in the pros. A hard working, playmaking, defense first centreman. His three goals in the NHL playoffs were one more than teammate Punch Broadbent. Nels Stewart was held to two assists, but he would erupt for six goals in four games in the Stanley Cup challenge against the
Victoria Cougars of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Phillips notched a goal and an assist against Victoria, but the NHL record book counts only games versus NHL teams and has him as the goal leader in the 1926 NHL playoffs.

Phillips would go on to play six full seasons with the Maroons and finished two goals behind Nels Stewart for the team lead in 1926/27. He finished up with the New York Americans in 1932/33 and retired after 302 NHL games and 52 goals.

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