By: Mitchell Fox
Thursday, Dec. 28 – 5-3 L VS Windsor Spitfires
Friday, Dec. 29 – 4-1 W VS Peterborough Petes
Sunday, Dec. 31 – 4-0 L @ Peterborough Petes
The Mississauga Steelheads did not return from the holiday break on the note they wanted to this week, losing two of three games against likely trade deadline sellers. The Steelheads iced a short lineup due to injuries and absences but still did not play up to expectation, except for a hard-fought win on Friday.
On Thursday, the Steelheads were handed a tough loss by the Windsor Spitfires, who came out of the holiday break last in the Western Conference. The Spitfires kept up a good run since bringing in Casey Torres as interim head coach but the Steelheads came up drastically short as discipline and giving up high-danger chances caught up to them.
Friday marked the first of two matchups against the Peterborough Petes and the Steelheads were able to come up with a needed 4-1 victory. Ryerson Leenders and Porter Martone led the way in that game but were one-upped on Sunday when the Petes’ top players came out flying and goaltender Liam Sztuska posted a 52-save shutout in a barn-burner of a 4-0 game.
Here are some takeaways from the last week of Steelheads hockey in 2023.
Injuries and absences mean top players have to step up
The Steelheads were missing five players coming out of the break, which has been added to with Jack Ivankovic facing a two to four-week injury after Thursday’s game. Angus MacDonell was injured with a concussion before the break and missed the whole week, though Richmond said the 18-year-old felt ready to go, he just needs to be cleared by doctors. He joined Jakub Fibigr and Lucas Karmiris as injured players, Marc Boudreau serving the remainder of a four-game suspension and Adam Zidlicky being away at the World Juniors.
The Steelheads brought up 2023 14th-round OHL Draft pick Wyatt Jinman, a Mississauga product who has been with the Toronto Nationals in the GTHL this season. He slotted onto the fourth line with seventh defenceman-turned-forward William Haley in all three games.
Jinman and Haley only played a handful of shifts on Thursday and Friday but saw more ice on Sunday – Jinman took six faceoffs, winning two. With a two-man fourth line playing even more limited minutes than usual, others slid up the lineup and took on bigger roles. Nevertheless, the Steelheads’ most important players remained as usual.
To Richmond, those players are the Steelheads captain, Chas Sharpe, and two most dynamic offensive players, Luke Misa and Porter Martone.
“[Sharpe, Misa and Martone] have to pull the rest of the guys with them,” he said. “They're the leaders, the other guys are the followers. If you're not going to lead or follow, then you need to get away. You're in the way.”
Part of that leadership involves playing a solid, complete game. Sharpe is a generally reliable two-way defenceman with a lot of experience in the OHL, while Misa and Martone are young players who can sometimes get caught up in certain parts of the game.
“Without five or six guys in the lineup, it's not easy to win in this league on a normal basis,” Richmond said. “When those guys are out, [the top guys] have to step up and they have to understand that they're going to be counted on to play two hundred feet.”
Misa's defensive awareness is respected in scouting circles and he played a strong two-way game on Friday, keeping the Petes’ top line relatively quiet. There was perhaps a cost to his offence – he had just one assist all week, though it came off of a great play to get the puck to the net on Thursday – but he also won 36 of 72 faceoffs in the three games (50%) and continued to be the Steelheads’ most disciplined player (he has just two penalties all season).
I am writing about Porter Martone again
Porter Martone is nearly unstoppable when it comes to scoring goals. That is clear in his 27 goals being 14 more than any other Steelhead and tied for second in the league. He made it especially clear this week with three goals in two games on Thursday and Friday.
The goals were not all the same either. One was a jam play in front of the net, one was a deflection of a point shot by Sharpe and the other was a sweet deke around Stzuska on the rush. He is truly a dynamic scorer.
On Friday, Martone also stood out because he bought into his leadership role on both sides of the puck. It might have been his strongest game defensively as he was notably engaged on the backcheck and in his own zone, even while showcasing his ability to drive play up the ice.
Richmond said Martone had a very good game on Friday.
“I thought [Martone] had a real strong game last night. He got frustrated because of how the game was going but he worked his butt off,” Richmond said on Friday. “He's gonna be good.”
Martone is the Steelheads’ most skilled player but he can also be a firecracker. He had penalties on Thursday and Sunday, including a fight against Petes defenceman Konnor Smith. For Martone to take on a bigger player likely earned him some kudos but it was also a potentially risky play and the Steelheads lost one of their best players for over five minutes of the game.
At the end of the day, Martone is a highly skilled player with lots of time to work on all facets of his game before the 2025 NHL Draft. In the meantime, Mississauga fans can enjoy the action-packed Porter Martone Show.
Steelheads will continue to rely on Leenders
The other leader for the Steelheads is one playing in the goal crease. Ryerson Leenders has undoubtedly been one of their most important players this season, with his 13-10 record and .910 save percentage as evidence.
Jack Ivankovic has been reliable in his rookie season but Leenders is the starter for the Steelheads, as Richmond has made clear. Now, after Ivankovic was injured during or after his 40-save performance on Thursday, they are going to count on Leenders even more for a couple of weeks. Richmond told media after the game Ivankovic would likely be out 2-4 weeks, which likely means Leenders will play most if not all of the games in back-to-back three-game weeks. Anthony Paolini could slot in for one of three games in three days next weekend, but Leenders is the Steelheads' go-to guy.
On Friday, Leenders was stellar in the Steelheads’ win over the Petes, especially in the second and third periods. He made 38 saves and the only goal he allowed was the result of sweet passing by the Petes on the powerplay. He also made a highlight-reel save on Carson Cameron in the second period.
“I think the team played a great game,” Leenders said after the game. “I know we went over a bunch of stuff in the D zone from last game and I think we tightened up and made it easy on me.”
Leenders will hope to continue his strong start to the season as he gets closer and closer to the NHL Draft. He has already been selected to the 2024 Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game to be held in Moncton on Jan. 24 (meaning the Steelheads will certainly hope Ivankovic is good to go before then), though he says he is focused on winning.
“I feel like I have a good steady mindset right now, not thinking too much about the draft and stuff,” Leenders said. “I know I have a great team in front of me and they'll help me win games, and I hope I help my team win games too.”
Discipline still a major talking point for Mississauga
Much to the dismay of the Steelheads, their coach and their fans, the penalty problem is still worth talking about. They allowed the Spitfires eight powerplays on which they scored three goals, then allowed eight once again on Sunday, though the penalty kill was strong enough to stop all but one of the Petes’ chances.
There were also several penalties that did not result in powerplays against, including a penalty shot on Friday plus a fighting major to Martone and a misconduct penalty to Sharpe on Sunday.
Though they did take four penalties including scrums in the final minute, the Steelheads showed more discipline and composure on Friday, which could be explained by Richmond’s revelation the players themselves discussed the issue between Thursday and Friday’s games.
“I let the players talk about it today because they should be upset with each other after last night,” he said on Friday. “[So, there was] much, much more discipline today.”
“We will win more hockey games the more disciplined we are,” he added.
Tacking onto the issue of taking penalties is what Richmond has described as discipline with the puck. Though he said it was improved on Friday, puck management in the defensive zone and through the neutral zone was a noticeable issue all weekend and has been throughout the last month or so.
“Guys want to take a step in and then try to make a play. It's just, don't take a step in. Take a step forward, take a hit, chip it out,” Richmond explained. “It's easy to say. It's not easy to do, because you're gonna get hit hard.”
With some tough opponents coming up in January, the Steelheads will need to work out the kinks in their puck movement and decision-making if they want to avoid giving up costly unforced goals.
This Week’s 3 Standouts
1. Finn Harding
Harding has been quietly good for the Steelheads this season, offering reliable defence on a strong right side with Sharpe and Parker von Richter. He does not make many glaring mistakes and has good defensive positioning, while he can also be fun to watch when he joins the rush and contributes on offence.
Harding leads the Steelheads in plus/minus at +26, well ahead of the other defencemen. Sheltered minutes on the third pairing help this number but it is still impressive, especially since Sunday marked only the third game all season Harding had a negative rating.
Harding finished the week +2 despite two losses and had three assists, two on Thursday and one on Friday. They were all secondary assists but Harding showed agility and composure walking the blue line with the puck and his assist on Friday involved jumping in on the rush, something the Steelheads need with Fibigr out.
2. Jack Van Volsen
I have written about Jack Van Volsen’s struggles to turn chances into points before but this week the Steelheads got a real positive in seeing Van Volsen contribute on the scoresheet multiple times. Thursday’s powerplay goal meant Van Volsen scored in back-to-back games for the first time all season, then he added an assist on Friday for his first three-game point streak.
Van Volsen has proven himself to be quite the powerplay weapon, as he has a lethal one-timer. He has had trouble hitting the net at times in his OHL career but has strong shooting fundamentals and power, so improving in that area and in getting sticks on pucks around the net could result in many more goals.
Another positive for the Steelheads is Van Volsen is generating more, currently sitting at four multi-shot games in a row. He is doing better to get to scoring areas and looks more engaged in recent games, perhaps helped along by his chemistry with Martone and the pressure of having to step up with MacDonell and Karmiris injured.
Awareness and vision are still a concern, but if Van Volsen continues to work up confidence, the Steelheads could get some much-needed contribution from him.
3. Kieran Witkowski
This third slot could have gone to many players. Luke Misa was good as needed and expected, Zander Veccia looked unstoppable with the puck for most of Friday’s game and Stevie Leskovar showed a mix of skills and smarts with his ability to cut off passes in the neutral zone, block shots, hit everything that moves and even create offence with shots for deflections.
However, the real standout is Kieran Witkowski. The rookie forward earned more ice time coming into the week, lining up with Martone and Van Volsen. He was noticeable on all sides of the puck on Friday, using his speed to get the puck deep into the zone and displaying playmaking skills with some nice passes. Witkowski also showed hockey sense and grit in his defensive effort, using his acceleration on the backcheck. Though he did not pick up any points, it was a good week for Witkowski to be tested higher up in the lineup.
Richmond said Witkowski has followed the gradual growth expected of rookies in the OHL.
“I think he's been getting better every month,” Richmond said on Friday. “He had a strong game. He was decent [on Thursday], but decent in the OHL doesn't win hockey games. So you need to be a bit better than decent. So it was good today.”
The Steelheads are back in action on Jan. 5 as they head to Kingston to take on the Frontenacs, before hosting the London Knights the next day.