By: Mitchell Fox
Friday, Nov. 10: 3-1 L VS Barrie Colts
Saturday, Nov. 11: 5-2 W @ Owen Sound Attack
A split weekend for the Mississauga Steelheads served as a bounceback from a difficult stretch, highlighting some key areas of concern but seeing some positives coming to form.
Friday night’s fiery clash with the Barrie Colts was one the Steelheads certainly wanted back, as a good performance at five-on-five was spoiled by a flurry of penalties. The 3-1 loss definitely could have been worse if not for Ryerson Leenders but also better if not for Colts goaltender Sam Hillebrandt.
On Saturday, the Steelheads headed North to play the Owen Sound Attack, who, like the Steelheads, entered winless in their last three games. The Steelheads extended that with a 5-2 win as Angus MacDonell continued his strong weekend with the puck and depth scoring returned to the equation.
After a 9-2 start, Mississauga is now 11-6. Nevertheless, 22 points is good for a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference, which is proving to be very tight this year (just two points separate the top five teams, and six points separate the top 9).
Here are five takeaways from a busy weekend for referees, goalies and coaches alike.
Steelheads coming back to Earth, but not plummeting
Friday’s loss marked the Steelheads’ third loss in a row, continuing a cool-off after a piping-hot start. Since beating the Kitchener Rangers (now first in the OHL) and the North Bay Battalion (two points behind Mississauga) in back-to-back games on Oct. 19 and 21, the Steelheads have lost four of six games.
Losing to the Sudbury Wolves was not a huge concern given their firepower but the Colts, Saginaw Spirit and Flint Firebirds are decent teams who have not started the season as expected and have looked beatable.
Head coach and general manager James Richmond says the Steelheads “maybe should have” won the game in Saginaw, while the Flint game got away from them. Putting it all together, he does not see the three straight losses as a slide.
“I'd rather be 10-6 than 6-10,” he said on Friday. “There are things to clean up but [I am] not worried about the slide. The slide is if we don't have the puck or we can't get any chances or anything like that.”
The Steelheads were able to create quality chances on Friday, with the three-headed monster line of Luke Misa, Angus MacDonell and Porter Martone leading the way. Still, Richmond said scoring just one goal was “not good enough” and the skilled players on the second and third lines needed to get going.
On Saturday, some of those players did just that.
Jack Van Volsen was the game’s first star thanks to a goal and an assist in a performance notably better than Friday’s. Marc Boudreau also scored his sixth goal of the season, while Lucas Karmiris and Mason Zebeski each had an assist. For the middle-six forward group to contribute offensively in that way will be key for Mississauga going forward.
One player who the Steelheads will want to get going is Zander Veccia. The speedy winger led the team with seven shots on goal on Friday but was stymied by Hillebrandt. 11 points in 17 games is on his pace from last year but it feels like Veccia has been snake-bitten, with just two goals to his name.
Richmond said he did not think anything needed to change for the Steelheads to bounce back after Friday’s loss. He said they were creating chances at five-on-five so it is about maximizing those.
“Just continue to do what we're doing and stay out of the penalty box,” he summarized.
The penalty thing… again
I do not like to repeat takeaways too often but it would be a disservice to not mention the Steelheads’ penalty troubles on Friday as a microcosm for their season and especially their woes in the last six games.
After Saturday, Mississauga remains at the top of the league in penalty minutes with 283, 29 above the next team and well above the league average of 208. Having 37 penalty minutes on Friday (15 of those came from three fights, but three 10-minute misconducts are not counted in that total) certainly helped to keep that unwanted league lead intact, as the Steelheads, and arguably the referees, lost control of the game in the second period.
The Colts scored just once on eight powerplay opportunities, including five in the second period, one of which was a five-on-three advantage. That one goal, though, was Roenick Jodoin’s game-winner. Despite playing well in the third period, the Steelheads did not have enough time and momentum at five-on-five to find the back of the net.
Richmond said he thought his team played well on Friday, both at five-on-five and on the penalty kill, especially during the five-on-three kill. To him, the reason for the result of the game was clear.
“That's the difference right there. Eight powerplays to two,” he said.
The game proved that while officiating can impact a game, so can unnecessary or desperate penalties. Stevie Leskovar took a delay of game penalty to end a shift controlled by the Colts, MacDonell and Parker von Richter each took tripping penalties after falling a step behind a Colts forward and Marc Boudreau’s interference penalty was not proportionate at all to Shamar Moses’ hit on Jakub Fibigr. Luke Dragusica also took a cross-checking penalty on the same play William Eggleton had an instigator penalty tacked onto his fight, leading to the five-on-three.
A positive for Mississauga is the penalty kill continues to do its job well. The five-on-three in particular was a key moment in the game.
“[To] kill a five-on-three, a full two-minute five-on-three, [that’s] pretty good. But we’ve got to stay out of the box,” Richmond said.
The Steelheads took five penalties (four powerplays against) on Saturday and allowed a powerplay goal but avoided any fights or misconducts. It was better but still more than their opponents and more than they should hope to take. The only time Mississauga has had less than 10 penalty minutes in a game this season was Oct. 19.
Mississauga have lost six of eight against Barrie since Sept. 2022
For some reason or another, the Colts have been Mississauga’s greatest enigma in the last two years.
Two losses this season, both featuring at least 30 saves from Hillebrandt, are most notable now but they also lost four of six games against the Colts in 2022-23. Brandt Clarke was the biggest factor in the past but this season, depth has been the Colts’ answer to Mississauga’s dynamic offence.
Beau Jelsma and Cole Beaudoin have been obvious stars for Barrie but Eduard Sale, Beau Akey and Roenick Jodoin have all been able to make their mark against the Steelheads, on and off the scoresheet. Meanwhile, Bode Stewart has scored his only two goals of the season in Mississauga and Connor Lowe’s only goal came in Barrie’s 6-1 win on Oct. 27.
A big difference maker this year is Hillebrandt. The undrafted 18-year-old played just three games for Barrie and was even used by the Steelheads as an emergency loan last year, while playing mostly in the Provincial Junior Hockey League, a junior C league. Hillebrandt has taken a serious step up this year, earning more starts than 20-year-old Ben West so far and posting a .923 save percentage.
He seems to really like playing in Mississauga too, as he made 34 saves on 35 shots when he played there on Oct. 27, followed by 31 saves on Friday.
Leenders rebounds, takes one of two goalie battles
Ryerson Leenders allowed a tough goal to start the game on Friday, as a shot from Beau Akey hit his blocker before going over his shoulder and into the net. After that, however, the Steelheads could not have asked much better from their draft-eligible goaltender, who worked his way back from two down games in Michigan.
“I think he'd tell you didn't like the first one, right? But I thought he was really good tonight,” Richmond said of Leenders. “After kind of an off weekend, he bounced back today.”
However, Leenders was one-upped. Hillebrandt had no intentions of letting anything beat him on Friday, except a goal by MacDonell on a two-on-one with Misa the Colts netminder had little chance of stopping.
Though they helped Hillebrandt’s numbers with some shots from outside the slot, the Steelheads were able to get pucks to high-danger areas. Though his team was able to do some of what they planned, Richmond said, Hillebrandt was just too good.
“We're trying to get it to a certain area where we think we can beat him,” Richmond said. “He made some pretty good saves in there tonight.”
“We had grade-A chances. A lot of them. And their guy made the saves.”
Saturday brought the goaltending matchup scouts and fans were anticipating.
Leenders and Carter George, the two highest-ranked OHL goaltenders for the 2024 NHL Draft, met for the first time this season. Leenders lived up to the hype, making 40 saves including 19 in the third period. George, meanwhile, faced the challenges Leenders did the week before, allowing five goals for the second night in a row after a 5-4 loss to the London Knights on Friday.
George still made 26 saves against a Steelheads squad looking like their best offensive selves, the most important takeaway for the Steelheads. Their whole team, from scorers to defenders to Leenders, improved as the weekend went on.
Jack Ivankovic brings home hardware from Under-17 Challenge
The other Steelheads goalie cannot go unmentioned this weekend either. 16-year-old Jack Ivankovic spent the week in Prince Edward Island winning a gold medal with Team Canada White at the IIHF World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
Ivankovic was the player of the game in Friday night’s semifinal as his 37 saves led Canada White to a 6-1 victory over Sweden. A day later, in the gold medal game, the Steelheads’ first pick in the 2023 OHL Draft was his team’s player of the game once again as he made 34 saves on 35 shots in a 2-1 overtime victory against the United States.
Ivankovic was also awarded goaltender of the tournament.
After Friday’s Steelheads game, Richmond said he was proud but not surprised to know Ivankovic was succeeding in PEI.
“I'm really happy for him,” he said. “He's a hell of a goalie.”
He added that a gold medal was what Ivankovic went to the tournament for. He was proven right, as the netminder will now return to the Steelheads with hardware and confidence.
Richmond said the Steelheads will get Ivankovic “back in right away,” when he is back with the team, which suggests he may play against the Kingston Frontenacs on Friday. Still, there is some question if giving him the net against a stronger Ottawa 67’s team on Saturday would be a good test for the rookie.
In the meantime, the Steelheads will hope for Parker von Richter to recover (he missed Saturday’s game with an injury) and the team to build momentum out of a better weekend back in Ontario.