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Five takeaways from Steelheads’ four-point powerhouse week


A bunch of Mississauga Steelheads players hug and high five as they celebrate a win. They are wearing pink jerseys and socks. There are photographers on the ice
The Mississauga Steelheads celebrate a victory on Pink at the Rink night on Oct. 21, 2023. (Mitchell Fox/INTERMISSION SPORTS)

By: Mitchell Fox


Results:

5-2 L @ Sudbury Wolves

7-6 W @ North Bay Battalion

4-1 W VS Kitchener Rangers


Thanks to a two-for-three week against some of the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) best, the Mississauga Steelheads finished the fourth week of the season at the top of the standings with a 9-2 record.


A 5-2 loss against the Sudbury Wolves on Wednesday showed the Steelheads have some serious competition in the Eastern Conference but a bounce-back win on Thursday against a North Bay Battalion team that knocked them out of the playoffs a season ago saw the Steelheads’ offensive firepower prove itself.


On Sunday, a 4-1 victory against the Western Conference-leading Kitchener Rangers on Pink at the Rink night – a cancer awareness game in which the Steelheads wore specialty pink jerseys – capped the week off on a strong note. The Steelheads showed they learned some lessons as the week progressed, turning in high-scoring affairs on the road for an impressive shutdown defensive game on Sunday


Four points out of a possible six is a result the Steelheads will take. The only obvious concern was an injury to rookie goaltender Jack Ivankovic on Thursday, however, head coach James Richmond said the netminder is expected to be back in a matter of days.


Here are five takeaways from an eventful three games in four days for the Mississauga Steelheads.


Neutral zone play is a focus for the Steelheads


A key aspect of Saturday’s game was the Steelheads winning the game on the rush, even if that is not the style of game they desire to play. In the first period especially, the Steelheads looked effective at a fast pace as they moved the puck cleanly and with urgency while shutting down the Rangers before they could get over the blue line.


Richmond said being better in the neutral zone was something the team was focusing on through the week. He emphasized the coaches have routes they want players to take when they do not have the puck on their stick, something they did not learn in minor hockey.


The errors were present earlier in the week, but on Saturday, the Steelheads won the portion of the game played in the neutral zone. The result was keeping one of the top offences in the league to one goal.


Richmond said he thought the Steelheads’ play in the middle portion of the ice helped to prevent the Rangers from taking free lanes, instead having to chip the puck.


“I thought we played really well in three zones of the ice for 60 minutes,” Richmond said about Saturday. “I thought we skated well through the neutral zone, put pressure on pucks and made them feel uncomfortable with the puck.”


Still, Richmond said the neutral zone, which he calls the “speed zone,” will be a focus for the next five days without a game, along with the defensive zone, which he called the “work zone.” The offensive zone? That’s where you have fun, and he’s not too concerned about that.


“I'm not gonna worry about the fun zone this week. We're gonna work on the D zone and neutral zone,” Richmond said, adding some clarification. “The harder you work in the D zone, the more we have the puck. The more we have the puck, the more fun you could have.”


Goal-scoring depth on the rise


The Steelheads got a lot of goals from their depth over the week, a great sign for the team’s ability to play as a unit and facilitate a “next man up” style.


Wednesday’s goals came from Angus MacDonell and Finn Harding. Thursday saw a Porter Martone hat trick and Chas Sharpe’s seventh goal of the season but also featured a comeback built on goals from William Eggleton, Jack Van Volsen and Adam Zidlicky. Saturday featured a goal from each forward line.


One of the players the Steelheads are counting on to catch fire as the season progresses is Van Volsen, the sixth-overall pick in the 2022 OHL Draft. The sophomore scored his first goal of the season and had three points against North Bay on Thursday, a welcome sight after four straight games without a point. On Saturday, Van Volsen was around the net a lot and showed flashes of impressive speed and relentlessness on the puck. It was a start to what the Steelheads will hope to be a progression towards Van Volsen becoming a regular appearance on the scoresheet and a reliable 200-foot center.


Saturday saw Zander Veccia score his second goal of the season and Justin DeZoete score his first goal and point. DeZoete, who has seen some healthy scratches this year, is a player the Steelheads will hope to thrive as a fourth-line presence with the monkey off his back.


The fourth line was something Richmond was glad to highlight. The trio of DeZoete, MacGregor Richmond and William Eggleton did their job on Saturday, keeping the puck away from Leenders in their own zone and playing deep in the Rangers zone. DeZoete’s goal, Richmond said, was a perfect example of what they work on in practice, where keeping the opposing team away from the slot turns into a quick rush up the ice.

“The fourth line, you're looking for eight to 12 minutes every night… and hopefully, wear the other team down,” he said, adding the team has the good depth they have not always had in the past.


Goaltending scares prove not too scary


11 goals against in two games earlier in the week was not on track with the Steelheads’ first couple of weeks, but it was hardly a case of bad goaltending.


23 saves on 28 shots on Wednesday night was not up to snuff with the numbers Ryerson Leenders had been posting to start the year but it is hardly a worry for the Steelheads. He was playing behind a team clearly not at their best off the bus, against a Wolves squad getting great performances from some of their best players, with Landon McCallum scoring twice and David Goyette and Quentin Musty contributing like the high-end players they are. It was Leenders’ first loss of the season and first game with a save percentage under .900. The Steelheads will need to win some of those games, just as Leenders has bailed them out of games.


Richmond said while a long bus trip is no excuse, it could be a reason for not being at their best on Wednesday.


“The effort was there in Sudbury but we were spinning our tires in mud,” he added.


Jack Ivankovic started in goal for Mississauga on Thursday, his third appearance of the season. He made 12 saves on 14 shots before leaving the game with an upper-body injury, which Richmond clarified on Sunday was a neck strain, less serious than originally thought. Richmond said the team was “stunned” by the injury for a bit and did little to help Leenders, who entered having played the night before and not expecting to play. Leenders’ 17-save performance on 21 shots was enough for a win, as he kept the Battalion off the board in the third period while the Steelheads chased a comeback.


Leenders really bounced back on Sunday, looking like one of the better goalies in the OHL. As part of a 35-save performance against a high-octane Rangers squad, Leenders made probably his best save of the season, a big deal given his stellar play already.

Leenders’ 14 saves in the third period, including a few high-danger chances close to the net, helped the Steelheads stay alive as the Rangers tried to fight back. He was awarded the first star of the game for his efforts.


Effort is there, maturity needs some work


Though the team showed determination in their comeback against North Bay and focus in their strong performance on Saturday, when looking for a word to define the team’s game of late, Richmond said maturity was not it.


The reason is simple. The Steelheads are taking far too many penalties. Though they lead the league with 18 points and are third in goals with a whopping 47, one other stat could bite them: they lead the league with 184 penalty minutes, 34 more than the team behind them.


Richmond said because the team is so young and inexperienced, they are going to make mistakes. So, taking too many penalties is an issue but patience and teaching discipline will be the key.


“Our guys are working hard. And they're working hard together,” Richmond said. “We look like we're trying to do what we're practicing all the time. Sometimes it doesn't work for us, but it's going to. It's going to come.”


Finn Harding exemplifies Steelheads’ defensive depth


One of the key factors for the Steelheads if they want to go on a playoff run this year will be if their defence can provide a steadying presence to their sometimes chaotic forward group. So far, it looks like the six regulars on the blue line are prepared to provide that.


Though Leenders and Ivankovic have faced a lot of shots in the first 11 games of the season, it probably has more to do with the team’s overall defensive play, including forwards coming back, than just the blueliners, who have proven their ability with and without the puck.


“It has to be five-man system that we play and our forwards are still working through it,” Richmond said.


The group on the blue line features strong defensive defencemen, including Chas Sharpe, who has 12 points in 11 games and is always a force in his own zone, the menacing presence of Stevie Leskovar and sophomore Parker von Richter who stands out for his smart positioning and solid skating. Luke Dragusica also provides size, strength and checking ability, while Jakob Fibigr stands out for his swiftness and speed.

The remaining defenceman is one who may be overlooked: Finn Harding. Harding, who went to the Detroit Red Wings’ training camp, looks like he has only continued to refine his game after a very strong end to the 2022-23 season. What stands out most is his ability to defend the rush, where his smart stickwork breaks a play apart just about every shift.


Harding was notable on Saturday for that reason. His swift skating, in the defensive zone and walking the blue line in the offensive zone, also made an appearance.


“I thought he was really good today,” Richmond noted of Harding, who he said has been working on his body positioning. “[He] broke up a lot of plays.”


If Harding continues to improve as he has over the last 12 months, the Fibigr-von Richter pairing cleans things up just a bit and Dragusica provides consistently effective play as a rookie, the Steelheads’ defence could easily establish themselves as one of the least desirable to play against in the OHL.


With the top spot in the league in their hands, the Steelheads will aim to build on three good efforts against legitimate contenders as they get set for matchups with the Barrie Colts and Kingston Frontenacs next weekend.



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