Steelers looking to snap MJHL playoff skid

Selkirk Steelers goaltender Zachary Bennett will be between the pipes for Game 1 of his team’s best-of-seven Manitoba Junior Hockey League quarter-final playoff series against the Virden Oil Capitals on March 8. Nathan Liewicki / The Selkirk Journal

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It’s been eight years since the Selkirk Steelers advanced past the quarter-finals of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League playoffs, and they desperatley want that streak to end when they take on the Virden Oil Capitals in this year’s post-season.

The Steelers have been bounced in each of their last six best-of-seven quarter-final series, last winning a series during the 2010-11 campaign when they reached the league final, only to lose the Turnbull Cup in five games to the Portage Terriers.

 “It certainly comes up when you talk to people around town, there’s no doubt about that,” Selkirk head coach and general manager Nick Lubimiv told The Selkirk Journal. “We want to fill the barn. We want to create excitement and give people a reason to come. For us, coming out of the first round would be huge not only for the organization … but it would certainly do the town and the players good in the short term and the long term.”

Selkirk finished the regular season fourth in the standings with a 34-20-3-3 record, and their 74 points were four more than fifth-place Virden accumulated on its way to a 31-21-4-4 mark.

The two MJHL foes met in last year’s quarter-final round, with Virden eliminating Selkirk in five games en route to the league final.

“We’re certainly familiar with them,” Lubimiv said. “They know and there won’t be a lot of secrets. It’d be nice to get a little bit of redemption from last year and I’m sure our guys are looking forward to it.”

The two teams split their six-regular-season games with the road team failing to pick up one win. In fact, Selkirk has lost eight straight at Tundra Oil & Gas Place dating back to a 4-1 win on Oct. 8, 2018.

Lubimiv understands the importance of having home-ice advantage in a seven-game series but knows to get over the playoff hump, the Steelers need to be able to steal road games too.

“We’re very comfortable at home, so for us it was a big deal to finish in the top four,” he said. “In saying that, we’ve had chances to win in Virden, but for whatever reason it’s almost like we find ways to lose there. It’s something that we are going to have to get over if we are going to make a run here. 

“Playing on the road is important and you can’t just win at home.”

Regardless of where they are playing, the Steelers have to remain disciplined. Selkirk was the second-least penalized team in the MJHL this season (874 penalty minutes), while the Oil Capitals racked up 1,128 penalty minutes.

In a battle of teams with efficient power-play units — Selkirk is second at 22.4%; Virden is third at 21.5% — Lubimiv knows his team must take advantage against a penalty-prone Virden squad, even though its penalty killing ranks third in the league at 84.5%. The Steelers penalty killing came in eighth in the 11-team circuit at 80.2%.

“We are, generally speaking, a disciplined team, and special teams in the playoffs is huge,” Lubimiv added. “Our penalty killing in February was where we wanted it — I think just a little under 90% — so we have improved in that regard. In terms of Virden, their penalty killing is right near the top … and their power play is top three. They’re well-coached and they’ve got good players over there that we’ll have to be ready for.”

Lubimiv called Virden’s top line of Kolten Kanaski (56 games played, 32 goals, 30 assists, 62 points), Frank McKinnon Memorial Trophy-winning Ben Dalke (60gp, 22g, 33a) and Blake Sidoni (45gp, 15g, 32a, 47pts) “arguably the best first line in the whole league,” while noting the Oil Capitals’ top defensive pairing of Jayden Wojciechowski and second-team all-star Tristen Cross do so many things so well.

Then again, the Steelers boast a trio of highly-skilled forwards themselves in second-team all-star Nate Halvorsen (58gp, 34g, 29a, 63pts), Connor Barley of St. Andrews (59gp, 31g, 26a, 57pts) and mid-season acquisition Noah Basarab (58gp, 28g, 27a, 55pts).

Selkirk Steelers forward Nate Halvorsen (right) led the team in scoring during the regular season with goals (34) and points (63). He was also named a second-team Manitoba Junior Hockey League all-star.

But, like most playoff series, this installment of Virden-Selkirk will likely come down to goaltending. 

Dalton Dosch and his 21-17-3 record with a 2.99 goals-against average and .903 save percentage is expected to get the call between the pipes for the Oil Capitals, while Lubimiv will go with the hot hand in recent MJHL player of the week Zachary Bennett.

Bennett won his last four starts to finish the regular season with a 21-10-0 record, 2.66 gaa, .920 save percentage and three shutouts.

“He has been really hot in February,” Lubimiv said. “We gave him the last couple of games off just to re-energize and get healthy. Benny is our number one guy going into the playoffs but in saying that … it’s always game-by-game in the playoffs and you never know what the future holds.”

The teams will alternate home games, withGames 1 and 3 takeing place at the Selkirk Recreation Complex on March 8 and 12, respectively, with Virden hosting Games 2 and 4 on March 10 and 14. If necessary, Games 5 and 6 would be March 16 and 17, with Game 7 on March 19. Every game begins at 7:30 p.m.