The feeling around the Selkirk Steelers organization was that this year was going to be different. The team was going to finally get over the hump in the playoffs.
However, after a six-game loss to the Virden Oil Capitals in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s quarter-final playoff round, it was the same old story.
Selkirk last won a best-of-seven series eight years ago when it reached the league final, and that skid continued following a 3-2 loss to the host Capitals in Game 6 on March 17.
“It’s quite shocking really, I’m still dumbfounded by it,” Steelers head coach and general manager Nick Lubimiv told The Selkirk Journal.
It was the second straight year Virden knocked out Selkirk in the opening round of the playoffs, winning in five games last year.
“There were just some times where we needed that second goal. We couldn’t pull away ever and we were always in one-goal games,” Lubimiv said. “They got some very timely goals and us not so much.”
The two MJHL foes split their six-game regular-season series, with the home team winning each time, but the Oil Capitals quickly stole home-ice advantage in the series opener with a 3-2 win in triple overtime on March 8.
Ryan Sokoloski was awarded a penalty shot five minutes into the sixth period but he was unable to score on Dalton Dosch. With 3:25 left in the frame, Kolten Kanaski scored his first of eight goals in the series for Virden.
The Steelers fell behind 2-0 with a 5-1 loss in Game 2, but rebounded to square the series with a 4-2 triumph in Game 3 at the Selkirk Recreation Complex and won in Virden for the first time since October 2018 with a 4-3 overtime victory on March 14.
Rookie forward Blake Burr scored 5:44 into the extra frame after Ryan Piwniuk tied it for Selkirk with 1:25 remaining in regulation.
Game 4 also proved to be pivotal as Dosch was injured late in the first period and rookie netminder Riley Wallace took over in the Oil Capitals crease for the remainder of the series.
In his first playoff start in Game 5 on March 16, Wallace stood on his head for Virden. The rookie stopped 46 shots and third-period goals by Dylan Halliday and Ben Dalke gave the Oil Capitals a chance to reach the league semifinals with a Game 6 victory.
“In the playoffs you need different guys to step up at different times and he ended up being a big piece for them at the end of the series,” Lubimiv said of Wallace. “That’s a credit to him. He answered the bell no doubt.”
With their season on the line, the Steelers came out flat at Tundra Oil & Gas Place, being outshot 18-4 in the first period of Game 6.
Virden kept pressing in the second period with 17 more shots, and three of them got past Zachary Bennett — one via Parker Brakebill and two from Kanaski.
“I don’t what it was but we really didn’t find our game almost the whole way through,” Lubimiv said of his team’s play in Game 6. “We were fighting it. The easy plays we weren’t making and credit Virden too. They did outplay us in that game. It’s tough when that’s the game you need and you don’t really bring your A game.”
Brady Pupp brought Selkirk to within a goal after scoring twice in the last four minutes, but in the end it was another disappointing pill for the Steelers to swallow. Another first-round exit.
Might the direction of the series have changed if the Steelers had managed to pull out Game 1? Maybe, but Lubimiv said his team had chances to make sure they — not Virden — were advancing to the semis to play the top-seeded Portage Terriers.
“You can always look back on that for sure,” he said. “It would have been nice to win Game 1 and it would’ve changed something, but at the end of the day we should’ve won Game 5 at home and we found a way to lose that one when we should’ve had a couple more (goals).”