Nanaimo captain Spencer Hewson protects the puck from the Grizzlies’ Cameron Thompson during B.C. Hockey League action Saturday. The teams open their Island Division best-of-seven semifinal series tonight (March 3) at The Q Centre.

New season begins for Victoria Grizzlies, Nanaimo Clippers

Island division BCHL rivals square off in first-round playoff series beginning tonight at The Q Centre in Colwood.

When it comes to preparing for their B.C. Hockey League playoff series against the Nanaimo Clippers, members of the Victoria Grizzlies aren’t naive enough to simply look at the numbers.

Despite the 30-point difference in the standings between the Island Division champions and the fourth-place Clippers, the Grizzlies know that playoffs are a different animal and teams get hungrier.

Not to mention the fact they got a good taste last weekend of what’s to come in this best-of-seven affair, which gets underway tonight (March 3) and continues tomorrow at The Q Centre.

“The last two games showed they were really pushing our guys, trying to get under their skin and bringing out the physicality … because that’s how they’ve got to play against us,” said Grizzlies head coach Craig Didmon. “It’s going to be a tough series. They’re a team that respects us and they’re going to work as hard as they can and do their best to wear us down.”

In a preview of the series Feb. 24 and 25, the teams split their final regular season games, with the Grizzlies spoiling the Hometown Hockey night in Nanaimo with a 3-2 double overtime win, and the Clippers stealing a 2-1 win the next night in Colwood. The games featured more of the emotion and intensity that marked past years’ series between these Island rivals.

Third-year Grizzlies forward Nick Guiney, one of six Greater Victoria minor hockey products on the team, said it’s going to be “a physical, fast-paced series,” but added the Grizzlies will need to stay focused on what they do well.

“We’re at our best when we stick to our game plan,” he said. “It’s about not getting undisciplined, not falling for their stuff after the whistle; simple hockey, pucks in.”

Teammate Tyler Welsh, a slippery and dangerous forward who can sometimes have a target on his back, agreed.

“We just had two pretty rough games with them,” he said. “I think they’ll be looking to bring the physicality and we’ll just be looking to get out of the series uninjured … If we get into the stuff with them, we just play into their hands. If we stay out of that stuff and play hockey, I think we’re the more skilled team, so I think that’ll take over.”

This year’s playoff run is particularly special for the senior members of the team, with six 20-year-olds graduating after this season, plus 19-year-olds Welsh and goaltender Matthew Galajda, who will also take their game to the college ranks next fall.

“It’s really our last chance to do anything in this league,” Welsh said.

“I’m super excited,” added Galajda, who will move on to Cornell University next season. “I definitely want to make it something special and have as much fun as we can and hopefully extend it as long as possible.”

While it’s the coaches’ decision who will play in net, Galajda expects to play game 1 and start immediately building momentum. “I love competing and battling …I’m not expecting to leave the net anytime soon.”

His counterpart at the other end of the rink, Clippers goaltender Evan DeBrouwer, predicts a close series, much like the past two games between the teams.

“I don’t think any of the guys are looking at it like we’re playing the first-place team,” he said. “I think we’re just looking at it as we’re playing Victoria, probably our first rival, and we really want to beat them.”

Ben Solin, the Clippers’ leading scorer during the season, said last weekend’s games gave his team some confidence and momentum, but noted the hockey is at a higher level now.

“We know they’re going to be ready and raising their intensity, so we’ve got to raise our intensity more than they do,” he said.

Games 3 and 4 are in Nanaimo on March 7 and 8 at 7 p.m., with game 5, if necessary, coming back to Colwood on March 10.

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