The Grandview Steelers’ playoff mastery of the Richmond Sockeyes continues and it doesn’t seem to matter how much adversity they face.
A 4-1 Game 7 victory at Minoru Arenas on Monday night made it five Pacific Junior Hockey League opening round series wins in the last six years against Richmond — dating back to the 2014-15 campaign.
That streak looked to be in serious jeopardy on Sunday night at the Burnaby Winter Club with the Sockeyes enjoying a 4-2 game six lead and less than five minutes away from a series win. However, the Steelers scored twice then pulled out an improbable 5-4 victory in overtime.
That result put them exactly where long-time coach and GM Aldo Bruno thought they would be all along — in a Game 7 winner-take-all showdown. That’s not a bad scenario when you happen to have the league’s best goaltender in veteran Cale Dolan.
“Every year we go through this and it’s unfortunate we have to do this to each other. Almost all the series have been seven games too,” said Bruno. "I told our guys before the game today I had a number that I had written in my head and it was seven and it would be a 3-2 victory. Those are just based on things I think are achievable by our players and I set goals like that for them.”
It’s a good bet the Sockeyes will be among the PJHL’s top regular season teams each year based on a roster loaded with speed and skill. This campaign was no exception and that talent was evident at times in this series, especially in winning games 4 (6-3) and 5 (7-0). The Steelers are also a perennial contender, only with a different blueprint.
Over the past two years, only Jack Hamilton, who scored a pair in Monday's victory, has been among the league’s top 20 scorers on a team where it often required a lot of different scorers to eke out a win. This season, Hamilton and fellow third-year vet Tomislav Zlomisic were point-a-game players, with rookie Jacob Paler-Chow also putting up the numbers, but over just seven regular season games.
The Steelers also received a big boost to the offence when it picked up former Sockeye Thomas Von Schoenberg in a deadline deal from Campbell River, after Richmond shipped the disgruntled defenceman to the Island.
The 21-year-old New West-born blueliner has contributed a team-leading seven points over the first playoff series against his former team.
“We can’t match them talent for talent but our work ethic is there. That’s our motto and that’s what our organization is about,” Bruno continued. “We have always been about having kids that have the heart ahead of the talent. When you do have talent and put the two together, you usually have good results.”
Brett Reusch doesn’t have to be convinced about that. The Sockeyes head coach has watched promising seasons come to an abrupt end the last couple of years courtesy of the Steelers.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow for sure and right now I’m just trying to digest everything,” said Reusch. “We blew a couple of two-goal leads in Game 6 and they are a relentless and mature group that does not give up.”
It was Hamilton who notched the Game 7 winner early in the second period. Jordan Myers then added a huge shorthanded breakaway goal in the third. That was more than enough for Dolan, who earned first star honours with a 35-save performance. Hamilton would put salt to the Sockeyes season with an empty-net tally in the dying moments. An unassisted first period goal from Nick Wilson was all Richmond could muster.
“Our offence dried up when we needed the most and when you have a 20 year-old in a Game 7 he can steal a game for sure,” added Reusch. "They finish every check, they put their body on the line and it’s like they are built for the playoffs.
“We were pretty banged up tonight playing back-to-back games so it was tough to utilize some our best players. That’s why it’s important to finish them off when you can.”
Grandview now meets regular season champion North Vancouver in the Tom Shaw Conference finals.
That series kicks off Friday, 8 p.m. at North Van's Harry Jerome Rec Centre. Game 2 goes Saturday at the same arena (7 p.m.), before action shifts to the Burnaby Winter Club for Games 3 and 4, March 2 and 4 ((7:15 p.m. starts). Game 5, if necessary, would be played March 7 in North Van, while a sixth game would go March 11 in Burnaby. A seventh game would be played March 13.