Steel Curtain playoff preview: Round 1

Left to right: Markus Johansen, Ryan Sullivan, and Gabe Adam will be crucial for playoff success. (Alistair Burns)

Shaw Conference’s postseason begins with Steelers v. Whalers

BURNABY WINTER CLUB – It’s our favourite time of the year! The fifth-seed Grandview Steelers will lace up against the fourth-place White Rock Whalers. What are the keys to victory for the yellow-and-black?

Steeler Conner Nelles. (A. Burns / GRA Steelers)

Game 1 of this best-of-three Pacific Junior Hockey League (PJHL) series will be held at the Burnaby Winter Club Feb. 14th at 7:15 p.m.

Let’s take a look at how these two teams match up for a best-of-three series.

Key # 1: Steel Curtain must stop Bran

During the 2023-2024 regular season, the Whalers and Steelers met six times; each side split the contests with three victories apiece. Their last encounter was a lopsided 7-1 win for White Rock in their home rink, Centennial Arena, Jan. 27.

Whaler Nathan Bran – a former Steeler – had a four-point night. Since he was moved to White Rock in the off-season, Bran’s point total has more than doubled, with 57 points.

Veteran Steeler defenceman Conner Nelles – who played in his 100th Pacific Jr. ‘A’ game Feb. 11 – will be a blue liner who will shadow Bran and his linemates.

Nelles, a 20-year-old who has an imposing six-foot-two frame, acknowledged that he and the defensive corps were “fired up” for the playoffs. “We love a challenge.”

“We can kick them around if we want – we just got to bring our ‘A’ game and be dialed in for every game, every period, every puck drop.”

Goalie Ronin Geraghty. (A. Burns / GRA Steelers)

Nelles collected only eight points this season. However, his fellow defencemen can light the lamp. Cam Northard was a constant threat to set teammates up with 37 points; Captain Gabe Adam notched 13 goals along with 20 helpers for 33 points.

Nelles wasn’t the only Steeler who declared that defensive play was crucial for success. Rookie Kori Belanger (who recorded 25 points) said that “defence is just pride…especially coming up to the playoffs here. That’s what we need.”

Between the pipes, Steeler netminders Ronin Geraghty and Shayan Kermany split the regular season finale; Kermany picked up the overtime victory.

Geraghty ended the regular season with a record of 13 wins and nine losses with a goals-against-average (GAA) of 3.41; Kermany had almost the opposite outcome with eight wins and 13 losses and a 3.96 GAA.

They’ll face two White Rock goalies with plenty of postseason experience – though both had uneven seasons: Mark Paton (12 wins, 7 losses) and Keegan Maddocks (11 wins, 11 losses).

Key # 2: Neutralize the White Rock home-ice advantage: A ‘funky rink’

Nelles astutely pointed out how the Whalers have more than the last line change at home in Centennial Arena; the “funky rink” is also smaller than the National Hockey League standard.

He added that defensively, the angles to head off rushes from the opposition would be more acute since once the Whalers skate over the blue line, “they’re basically [at] the net.”

Tanner Milne, back from illness. (A. Burns / GRA Steelers)

Naturally, the Whalers will be more prepared for odd puck bounces off the boards. They’ll host Game 2 on Saturday Feb. 17th at 7:15 p.m. If necessary, Game 3 would also be in Centennial, Monday Feb. 19th at 3 p.m.

Key # 3: Grandview scorers Milne, Konechny need plenty of mojo

A few weeks ago, Grandview’s leading scorer Tanner Milne, 20, missed some games due to illness, which prevented him from a 50-point season (he ended with 48). This year is his final chance for PJHL glory.

Thankfully for the Steelers, Milne’s back. He appreciated that it was an “amazing feeling” to come back for his swan song. “They welcomed me back with open arms. I’m loving it,” Milne commented at the end of January.

Though Milne was a healthy scratch for the final regular season game, the other consistent Steeler scorer, Steven Konechny, was on fire that night with a hat trick Feb. 11.

For the playoffs, “the team that competes harder is going to win the series. That’s it,” he bluntly concluded.

Steven Konechny. (A. Burns / GRA Steelers)

Only the penitent man will pass

Finally, a scheduling note on Game 1, this Wednesday, Feb. 14. It’s also St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of Lent.

Last year, in 2023, Ash Wednesday marked a thrilling start for Grandview’s playoffs. They won their opener against the North Vancouver Wolf Pack in overtime and went on to win that series in double overtime in Game 3. Hopefully that’s a good sign for 2024!

So it all comes down to this: will the Steelers have some victory Valentine’s chocolate, or soberly reflect? We’ll find out Wednesday.

Hope to see you then!