The 33-year-old Welshman has been out since the back end of November and has missed nine games after undergoing surgery on a sports hernia – the same injury fellow forward Colton Fretter sustained a few weeks previously.
During the last two weeks of his absence, the Steelers had enjoyed something of a renaissance with a five-game winning streak before it was ended with a 3-2 home defeat to Coventry Blaze last Sunday.
But Phillips returns to lead a team just one point and one place below Nottingham ahead of this weekend’s double-header, starting with a Boxing Day showdown at the Sheffield Arena before the two teams reconvene at the National Ice Centre 24 hours later.
Thompson, who was hugely critical of his team’s defensive deficiencies in the defeat to third-bottom Coventry, said the timing of Phillips’s return could not be better.
“As a captain he isn’t a shouter, but I like the way he goes about his business,” said Thompson.
“He’s a very calm and measured guy and his relationship with me is very good and a very important one. We know we can speak openly with each other.
“He’s a positive guy to have around the place and you can see the respect he automatically gets back from the other guys.
“He has great speed and you can play him in any situation. This is a time of year where it is all hands to the pump and we’ve got a lot of games coming up so it’s great to have him back out there again.”
Steelers are hoping they can break the 9,000-plus attendance barrier for the latest visit from a Panthers team who enjoyed a 4-1 win on their previous trip to Sheffield on November 15.
But Thompson’s players gained revenge with a sweet 6-4 triumph at the NIC two weeks later and will look to have overhauled their rivals by the end of the weekend.
“It shouldn’t be any different to playing the Panthers at any other time of the season, but these two games are a bit special,” said Thompson, who admitted he had a “tough” decision to make when deciding to go with Marek Pinc as his No 1 goalie, leading to the exit of original first-choice Tyler Plante earlier this week.
“We’re hopefully going to fill this place and these are the kind of games our boys should be excited about. But we must make sure we don’t get carried away and just look at both of these games as a way of picking up another two points at a time.”