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Steelheads Playoff Takeaways: Mississauga not hungry like the Wolves in game 1


BY: MITCHELL FOX


The Mississauga Steelheads came up short in their first playoff game of 2024 on Thursday night at Paramount Fine Foods Centre, falling 3-0 to the Sudbury Wolves.


The Wolves scored on their first shot of the game and controlled the game from there on, keeping the Steelheads far away from the scoreboard in a game filled with penalties and not-so-filled with high-danger scoring chances. 


Here are some takeaways from a dramatic game one in Mississauga.


Early goal handed Wolves control of the game

The Steelheads were not quite chasing from the opening faceoff, but close to it—when an early goal hit the back of their net, things went downhill.


Landon McCallum scored on the Wolves’ first shot of the game, just 1:56 in. A defensive miscue and a skilled move by McCallum to pull the puck through his own legs pulled Ryerson Leenders just out of position enough to open up some net.


From that moment on, Sudbury had control of the game. A flurry of penalties kept the game away from five-on-five for much of the first period and when the Steelheads did look like the stronger team for flashes in the second and third period, they could not put everything together.


Wolves goaltender Jakub Vondras looked comfortable all game as he earned a 32-save shutout, while their usually suspect defensive game looked unbeatable.


Steelheads head coach and general manager James Richmond said his team seemed eager to get going all week leading up to the game, but when the time came, they “laid an egg.”


“We had no offense going at all,” said Richmond after the game.

 

Penalty-filled first favoured Wolves, kept Steelheads quiet

The first period saw a constant stream of penalties, with the Steelheads taking seven and the Wolves taking six. Overlapping and coincidental penalties kept things even at 4-on-4 at times but meant there was little time for the Steelheads to find their game at five-on-five, which probably where they have played the best all year.


Richmond said “you don’t” build at five-on-five when there are so many penalties in a period. The Wolves had eight minutes in power play time in the first and used it to control the game.


Richmond was unhappy to say the team, including the players, had stressed all week that they had to stay out of the box. The Wolves scored on 10 of 28 power plays against Mississauga this season and had one of the best power plays in the league, which the Steelheads were surely aware of.


“We have to […] stay out of the penalty box,” said Richmond with frustration. “We high-hit a guy, we throw a stick at a guy, we take a double minor for roughing at the bench—he's not even in the play.”


Mississauga can take solace in the performance of their penalty kill—which gave up just one goal, at four-on-three—but the inability to generate on their own power play or at four-on-four meant not making up for the early goal against, nor the second one scored by Dalibor Dvorsky.


Ultimately, the Steelheads’ execution lacked from puck drop and never picked up, as indicated by the zero beside their name on the scoreboard.


“Our power play couldn't even get in their zone,” said Richmond. “Going into playoffs, we know what they're doing, so we know how to execute. We didn't execute tonight.”


Despite starting the second period with a powerplay, the Steelheads were unable to grab momentum with the fresh ice and clock. As the period went on, the Wolves looked more and more like the faster and smoother team on the ice. Despite outshooting the Wolves 9-6 in the middle frame, the Steelheads still trailed 2-0.


“The second period at five-on-five, we took it to them with the opportunities, but we didn't get inside [the slot],” said Richmond.


He said his team did a “good job” of limiting the Wolves’ offensive chances. The problem was the lack of offence, especially from the top of the lineup.


“Our top two lines were non-existent today,” the Steelheads coach said. 


Mississauga lacked energy and urgency

Behind the lack of offence for Mississauga was a key missing ingredient from their best games all season: speed. The Steelheads have one of the fastest teams in the league with the likes of Misa, Mason Zebeski, Adam Zidlicky, Lucas Karmiris and more but did not look like it on Thursday—Zidlicky was the only one who showed his speed regularly, though he also made mistakes with the puck.


“It was one of the slowest games I've seen us play in a long, long time,” said Richmond.


From the Steelheads’ lack of speed came a lack of ability to turn the game in their favour by getting to the parts of the ice they wanted. The Wolves clogged up the middle of the ice and stopped the Steelheads’ slow zone entries—both at even-strength and on the power play—where they ended up dumping the puck in and losing the race to it almost every time. 


Richmond saw his team’s struggles with execution as being connected to a lack of urgency.


“The problem today was you gotta have a playoff level of commitment. There just wasn't that desperation to win the game today,” he said. “We had the puck and we had chances, and we either missed the net or flubbed a pass. Our execution wasn't there.”


Richmond pointed to two two-on-one opportunities as an example. The Steelheads did not get a shot on goal on either play, as their passes were off the mark. Richmond did not think it was the result of his team having just one 2004-born player compared to Sudbury’s 12.


“That had nothing to do with age, that just has to do with execution,” he said.


The Steelheads came out of the gates energized in the third period, but the lack of results is telling. Despite finishing their checks and looking excited and rowdy on the bench, they remained shut out.


“That's minor hockey stuff,” Richmond said of the third period energy on the bench. “You have to play with pace and execute. That's what it comes down to.”


Little to draw from as the series continues 

In game two on Saturday and in all games beyond that, the Steelheads will have to ignore game one outside of looking at what was missing and knowing they are down 1-0 in the series.


“Game one's gone. We can't get it back,” said Richmond. “They didn't win two, they won one. So now we move on to the next game. We have to have a better effort.”


The biggest positive for the Steelheads that they can carry into the next game is their defence was mostly reliable and their goaltending was strong. Richmond said Ryerson Leenders was “the least” of their problems, though he would have to discuss with goaltending coach Chris Beckford-Tseu before deciding whether Leenders or Jack Ivankovic would take the net in game two.


Either way, the Steelheads will be confident in their goaltending and much more focused on their offensive play. The Wolves are a hard team to contain—they led the OHL in goals in the regular season—so keeping them to two goals and an empty-netter could be a challenge from here on out, especially on their home ice. 


3 Stars of the Game

1. Jakub Vondras

Jakub Vondras was awarded the first star of the game after the game and is also my first star. The Wolves goaltender did his job and more, making all 32 saves he was called on to make. 


The Steelheads were not at the top of their game but for Vondras to get the net over Marcus Vandenburg and help his team to a win on the road is nothing to brush over. If he had made just one mistake, the Steelheads could have gained enough to change the direction of the game. He made none.


2. Dalibor Dvorsky

Dalibor Dvorsky was the most noticeable forward on the ice from puck drop to the final buzzer. Other players had their moments, but Dvorsky was consistent in his showing of speed, skill and strength—there was no way he was not going to score.


The Slovak forward’s first goal came from a one-timer on a four-on-three powerplay. Nobody on the ice or in the press box was sure how it went into the net but the sheer power of the shot was reflected in how the puck lodged between the back post and Leenders’ water bottle.


Dvorsky added an empty-net goal, which broke the Steelheads’ back when they tried to fight back towards the end of the game. 


3. Ty Collins & Donovan McCoy

Deciding on the third star was a tough one for me, so I cheated. Ty Collins and Donovan McCoy were Sudbury’s two strongest defensive defencemen in the game, as they routinely shut down plays with their sticks and bodies.


The Steelheads’ rush was stymied by the two defencemen’s lockdown style to take away the middle of the ice, while the cycle seemingly had no chance against their physicality. 


The two helped their team out at the other end of the rink as well—McCoy had four shots on goal, while Collins had two.


Steelheads top players: Finn Harding and Ryerson Leenders

Though he did not get on the scoresheet, Finn Harding might have been the Steelheads’ top skater on Thursday. The 19-year-old played his usual strong rush defence by cutting off passes—including one notable one on a dangerous shorthanded two-on-one in the second period—and forcing players to the outside. 


Harding also had one of the game’s biggest hits, an open ice knock on Quentin Musty that spurred a roar from the crowd and his team. 


The other obvious choice for the Steelheads was Leenders. With 28 saves on 30 shots, Leenders provided all the Steelheads could ask for and made a strong case to be kept in the net for game two.




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