Steelers' top defensive pairing signs for second year

They were arguably the most consistent defensive partners in the Elite League – and now they are coming back to Sheffield hoping to do an even better job.
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Steelers today confirmed that Matt Petgrave and Niklas Nevalainen, who sometimes had an almost telepathic understanding on the Arena blue line, will return for a second year.

The pair were top of the team’s plus-minus statistics last year – only five players across the whole league did better than them in that category, four of them from all-conquering Belfast Giants.

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Coach Aaron Fox, who has an eye for player-data, said: “They only gave up an even-strength goal every 41 minutes of the five-on-five time that they were out there together, which is an elite accomplishment.”

Niklas Nevalainen and Matt Petgrave on the boards. Pic Dean WoolleyNiklas Nevalainen and Matt Petgrave on the boards. Pic Dean Woolley
Niklas Nevalainen and Matt Petgrave on the boards. Pic Dean Woolley

Now the pair have committed for a second term.

It was clear at the end of last season that it was Nevalainen who had to modify his game most to make the partnership work.

In his previous season in Norway, he had scored 37 points in 42 games, but his chances to roam forward were limited as Petgrave had an equally impressive drive to go into the offensive areas.

The Finnish skater said: “The points (tally) in Norway is the way it had been pretty much all my career.

Niklas Nevalainen  Pic Dean WoolleyNiklas Nevalainen  Pic Dean Woolley
Niklas Nevalainen Pic Dean Woolley
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“That is something you like to do, obviously, but as you get older you don’t know how many years you have got left in hockey, and the main thing is to win.

“And to win sometimes you have to sacrifice your own urges a little bit and be a good team player and do whatever the team needs to win.

“We both liked to play with the puck and play offence, but obviously one of us has to take a more defence-first role and I only care that the team wins so I am willing to do what that means.”

Nevlainen is proud of the understanding he formed with Petgrave, one which was created from the first league game of last season, against Cardiff Devils.

Matt Petgrave clears  Pic Eric BlackMatt Petgrave clears  Pic Eric Black
Matt Petgrave clears Pic Eric Black
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“It was pretty good last year and to know that he is coming back and that makes me really happy.”

Petgrave was equally pleased and acknowledged his team-mate’s sacrifice.

“We played one game together at the start of last year and from then on we hit the ground running and it all seemed really natural.

“Nevy gave me the leave to get up in the play and it was a great relationship. We pick each other up and get the best out of each other.

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“There are a couple of new D men coming in for next season, and I don’t know if we will be pairing again but if I am I’ll be happy.”

Petgrave said that he knew within a few weeks of being in Sheffield that he wanted to put some roots down.

“Having a coach who had faith in what I could do was important to me and I realised pretty early that the organisation and fan base was something I wanted to be part of in the longer term.

“I have signed again now because I think we will have a hell of a time and this is the place where I want to make hockey memories. I am coming back to join in something special.”

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Nevalainen said he had been talking with Fox through much of the summer.

“Coming back was about getting the right pieces of the puzzle in the right spot” he said.

“When you have a little kid and a wife, there is more to think about than the hockey part.

“My daughter will be two and a half when we get back to Sheffield and me and my wife are all looking forward to it.”

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Nevalainen’s services triggered interest in Denmark and Norway.

“Sheffield was the best option overall,” he said.

Meanwhile Fox said of the returnees: “I’m really excited to have this pair back together as they were extremely effective.

“Matt is a smooth skating defenceman who finished the year with 48 points in 54 regular season games and was +41 in plus-minus.

“He is a player who can jump in the play and produce some big numbers offensively.

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“Defensively he is very aggressive and gets us stops below the goal line, he has excellent gap control and is willing to put his body on the line on the PK.”

As for Nevalainen: “He finished the year with 23 points and plus-40. I think that his hockey sense is elite and he reads the game at an extremely high level.

“Niklas has a great stick defensively and is always in the right spot at the right time. He is a pure mover who always makes the smart correct play without much risk in his game and is a selfless teammate.”