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Steelheads Takeaways: Mississauga catches up with 7 points in 7 days

PLayers in light blue Mississauga Steelheads jerseys skate past their bench and give high fives. There are some fans behind the bench
(Michell Fox/INTERMISSION SPORTS)

BY: MITCHELL FOX


RESULTS:

Friday, March 1 – 4-3 OTL VS Ottawa 67’s

Sunday, March 3 – 6-1 W @ Windsor Spitfires

Wednesday, March 6 – 5-1 W VS Brantford Bulldogs

Thursday, March 7 – 4-3 OTW VS Barrie Colts


Thanks to three wins and seven points over their last four games, the Mississauga Steelheads are now solidly in the race for the top of the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Eastern Conference.


Despite a strong effort, Mississauga fell victim to its usual overtime troubles on Friday, coming up just short against the Ottawa 67’s at Paramount Fine Foods Centre. After that, though, they rebounded in a big way.


On Sunday, the Steelheads took advantage of an opportunity to keep up with the rest of the division against the Windsor Bulldogs, pulling out a dominant offensive performance emphasized by Adam Zidlicky’s four-point night. 


A few days later came an exciting School Day Game matchup between two contending teams in the Eastern Conference, with the Steelheads defeating the Brantford Bulldogs in fairly dominant fashion.


The week rounded out with Mississauga’s first overtime win of the season as they finished off a third-period comeback against the Barrie Colts, a team whose goaltenders have given them trouble all season. 


Here are five (four, plus some standouts) takeaways from a busy but successful week for the trout.


Steelheads keeping pace in the jam-packed East

The OHL’s Eastern Conference is bringing a ton of drama this season, as it has for most of the season.


An up-and-down season has seen the Steelheads go from the top of the East to a playoff hopeful in January, followed by a hot streak since February. Now, they are part of a definitive top six in the East. They are fifth, but just four points back of first with seven games remaining. 


Steelheads head coach James Richmond said after the win on Wednesday the Steelheads were chasing, but third to sixth place in the conference were wide open.


“We're behind everybody, but if we can continue to do what we've been doing in the last three weeks, we might be able to scratch our way in there,” he said.


“You’ve got to find a way to win this time of the year,” he added. “You’ve just got to keep scratching and clawing and paying attention to the detail of the game. I think we did that pretty well today. I think we've been doing well for the last three, three and a half weeks.”


Little did Richmond know, things would work a bit in their favour since then. Though the Oshawa Generals have won six straight and are now tied for first, the Bulldogs have been inconsistent and the first-place Sudbury Wolves just lost two key forwards to 10-plus-game suspensions


After their win over Barrie, Mississauga has lost in regulation just once in their last 13 games. They have outscored opponents 61-42 and outshot opponents 510-391 in that stretch, while being outshot just twice, both in games they won. Their offence has kicked it up a notch, in large part due to strong team defence, which contributes to effective transition play.


If the Steelheads can keep things going, they could earn themselves home ice in at least the first round of the playoffs. With three games against non-playoff teams and four against fellow teams in the top six of the Eastern Conference, it is truly in their hands. 


Overtime struggles continue for Mississauga

After Friday’s overtime loss to Ottawa, the Steelheads were 0-7 in the extra frame. They won once in the shootout in December but had otherwise been unable to close out close games unless they did it in the third period (which they have done many times).  


They broke that slump on Thursday in Barrie. 


The Steelheads had to get through another 40-plus save performance by a Colts goaltender as Ben West played lights out, but a 20-shot onslaught in the third period was enough to power a comeback for the trout, thanks to two goals from defencemen, Chas Sharpe and Finn Harding. In the extra frame, Lucas Karmiris buried an important winner.


After Wednesday’s game, Richmond told media that not having three-on-three overtime in the playoffs was good for his team, who had just had too many troubles in those situations.


“We put ourselves into bad spots in overtime,” he said. “Part of it is experience or lack thereof. So we'll get it.”


He had no idea that would come the next day.


The two overtime games this week told similar, yet somehow completely different stories. The 67’s are a better team than the Colts and Friday looked like a true playoff matchup – especially in the third period – but both games required late comebacks. Against Ottawa, despite bouncing back to force overtime, the game got away from the Steelheads immediately in the extra frame – the 67’s had more and better chances, and Henry Mews’ game-winner almost felt inevitable.


“It's a one-shot game,” Richmond said. “Their shot went in, our shot didn't go in. So that's how it ends.”


On Thursday, though, the Steelheads were the only team with a shot in overtime. They took care of business. 


That might need to continue with tough matchups with Ottawa, Oshawa, Brantford and the North Bay Battalion still remaining in a jam-packed schedule.


At their best, Steelheads swarm the ice 

One of the biggest factors when the Steelheads are at their best is their speed and the way they use their presence on the ice. They were aggressive and forechecked hard all week, which led to a dominating appearance at times throughout each game.


On Friday, the Steelheads took on a 67’s team that likes to have the puck a lot and play a stingy defensive game. 


“They play a possession game. They don't give up a lot, similar to what we do,” Richmond said, adding the two teams were close in goals for and against this season.


While the physical play came down to earth later in the game, forechecking remained a key element for the Steelheads. They kept the 67’s in their own zone, won battles and forced penalties, the last of which resulted in the game-tying goal by Mason Zebeski. 


On Sunday, the Steelheads were mostly able to lock the Spitfires in their defensive zone. Their defencemen were active in shutting down chances before they started, while the forwards were comfortable cycling the puck low.


Wednesday’s win over Brantford might have been the best example of what the Steelheads can do when they play tough and fast. Richmond said Bulldogs head coach Jay McKee is “one of the best coaches in the league” and gets his team to play a fast but structured game, so both teams came out speedy and aggressive.  

  

“I think our guys did a good job of making them feel uncomfortable with the puck,” Richmond said after the game. 


At the same time, Richmond praised his team’s patience in not forcing plays or getting too aggressive in the wrong spots. 


“I thought our guys did a better job today of staying patient than we have in a long time,” he said.


One of the best examples of playing hard and fast came from Adam Zidlicky and Mason Zebeski, who were playing on either side of Luke Misa on Wednesday and Thursday. Zidlicky might be one of the fastest players in the OHL and is tough along the boards, while Zebeski is unafraid to go to any area on the ice and has speed that can catch teams off guard.


Richmond said the two wingers are very aggressive on pucks, which he hoped would help Misa generate offence as their center.


“We thought maybe Misa would spring open a little bit more and have the puck a little bit more,” he explained. He said that did work out.


Porter Martone was injured against Windsor and is expected to miss the next three weeks, so it will be important for players like Zebeski and Zidlciky to work well together in the Steelheads’ top six.


Boudreau, Leskovar stepping up in other areas

I wrote last week about Marc Boudreau and Stevie Leskovar as standout players, in large part because of their contributions at both ends of the ice. This week, both players continued to make their mark in ways they might not usually be expected – on offence.


Boudreau’s goal on Wednesday opened the scoring on a hot note, as his move around Bulldogs defenceman Daniel Chen was not what fans had become accustomed to from the 20-year-old.


Boudreau has shown more flash and skill lately, seemingly taking the new A on his jersey as inspiration to trade some of his early season penalty minutes for goals.  Richmond has said many times he wants his bottom six forwards to shoot more often and Boudreau has done exactly that.


Another player shooting more is Stevie Leskovar, who has been more involved on offence since February. The scoresheet might say the big blueliner only took six shots this week, but he generated more than that. He was effective in placing shots to be deflected in front and he played a big part in keeping the puck in the offensive zone.


Leskovar’s calling card is of course his defensive and physical play, as he is one of the Steelheads’ most effective checkers and defensive net-front presences. This week, he also made plays with his stick and kept pucks in the offensive zone with well-timed pinches.


On Friday, Richmond said Leskovar was “dynamite.”


Leskovar also factored heavily into physical battles and penalties this week, including by making his mark early on Friday. His hit on Caden Kelly was a hard but legal one to get the energy going in the building, which Richmond was a fan of.


“It's a great body check,” he said.


The Steelheads’ coach said starting the game off with physicality aligned with the way the team has liked to play all season.


“We're a fast physical team,” he said. “We like playing that way.”


If the Steelheads want to play physically and keep up their recent hot streak, having Boudreau and Leskovar continue to make their mark in multiple facets of the game will be a big factor.


This week’s four standouts

1. Jakub Fibigr

Jakub Fibigr was not only a standout for the week, but in each game. He contributed in all four games this week, with six points to show for his efforts.


He scored on Friday by putting home Porter Martone’s flashy saucer pass on the two-on-one.


Richmond said it was a great goal.


“Good on [Fibigr] to finish his line to the net, and the puck was there for him,” he said. 


Fibigr also made a few slick moves and a nice pass to set up Luke Misa on Sunday against Windsor.


The Czech defenceman showcased his speed and skill but was also one of the Steelheads’ most disciplined and poised players throughout the week. He has looked calm and confident on a pairing with Finn Harding – the two have found a connection in being able to transition the puck smoothly.


After Wednesday’s game, Richmond said Fibigr has been great in his first season in the OHL.


“I think he's done as much as any other rookie in the league,” he said, then pointing out Bulldogs Jake O’Brien, another rookie. “Fibigr means as much to us, maybe more, than he means to them.”


“He defends through the blue lines as well as any young guy I've seen come into the league,” he added. 


Along with Fibigr’s ability to transition the puck and his speed, Richmond took time to point out the Czech rookie’s hockey IQ.


“He knows how to control a game,” he said. “He's a very good manager of the time, manager of the game. He speeds it up, he slows it down, and he goes East, he goes West. So he's a very smart player.”


2. Adam Zidlicky

Another Czech comes in second on the standouts list this week. Adam Zidlicky’s four-point performance on Sunday is enough to justify his place on this list, but he did much more.  


Zidlicky had assists on Wednesday and Thursday as well, the latter on Finn Harding’s game-tying goal. That assist was one of his nicer ones this season, as he feathered a saucer pass across the ice to Harding sneaking down the right side. 


Zidlicky also had several opportunities that did not end his goals. His acceleration came in handy a few times as he stripped opposing players of pucks on the penalty kill or in the neutral zone to spring himself for a rush.


His two goals on Sunday both came on short breakaways, where his hands seemed to catch up to his feet to bury the puck.


3. Mason Zebeski

Mason Zebeski stood out for a few reasons this week – including posting three points –, but he was especially noticeable in one area: the net front.


Zebeski not only creates havoc with his physical play and ability to attract defenders out of position, but has a penchant for redirecting pucks. There is no stat for tipping pucks, but it felt like Zebeski had at least a dozen of those opportunities over the four games. 


Richmond said Zebeski spends 15-20 minutes after a lot of practices working on his deflections with a couple of the team’s defencemen. The Steelheads coach said he told the 18-year-old to watch clips of Joe Pavelski, an NHLer known for his net-front abilities.


“He's not afraid. If you want to be a pro, you can’t be afraid in the net front,” he said.


Zebeski’s late powerplay goal on Friday got the Steelheads to overtime, which added a point in the standings. Richmond was glad to see Zebeski get the goal, which he deflected between his legs.


“He’s [been] working on [net-front play], so great to see him rewarded with that one.”


4. Jack Van Volsen

Jack Van Volsen contributed in multiple ways this week as well. He did not get on the scoresheet on Friday but was noticeable as part of a third line with Boudreau and William Eggleton that controlled a lot of possession. For the rest of the week, he built up his second three-game point streak of the season.


Van Volsen’s breakaway goal with ten seconds left on Sunday was a sign of things to come on Wednesday. He scored twice on the powerplay against Brantford, both requiring him to find space near the net and finish with no doubt.


Richmond said the Steelheads acquired Van Volsen as a shooter, so they want him to shoot. He did that with at least three shots in each game this week. Richmond must have liked his play, as he gave him lots of ice time with a chance for a first career hat trick on Wednesday.


“Too bad he didn't get the third one,” Richmond said after the game.

 

Van Volsen has played both at left wing and center this season, with mixed results but noticeable improvement at both. Richmond said he does not have a preference necessarily, as Van Volsen’s exit rates – getting the puck out of his zone – on the left wing are “really good” and he can win a lot of faceoffs (he won 10 of 11 he took on Wednesday).


The Mississauga Steelheads are back in action on Sunday against the Ottawa 67’s at TD Place. They return to Paramount Fine Foods Centre on Tuesday, Mar. 12 for a 7 p.m. puck drop. 





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