By: Mitchell Fox
Wednesday, Dec. 13 – 6-2 L @ Oshawa Generals
Friday, Dec. 15 – 7-3 L VS Oshawa Generals
Sunday, Dec. 17 – 3-1 W VS Ottawa 67’s
Even with a week of short lineups and difficult opponents, the Mississauga Steelheads are entering the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) holiday break tied for first place in the Eastern Conference.
The Steelheads, who now hold an 18-11-2-0 record, faced off against two opponents on either end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture over five days but had results opposite from perhaps expected.
They were bested by the red-hot Oshawa Generals in both games of a home-and-home, falling 6-2 on Wednesday and 7-3 on Friday, a game they ended with 10 forwards and five defencemen. On Sunday, with just ten forwards on the ice and a new face on the blue line, the Steelheads and Jack Ivankovic rose to the occasion against the Ottawa 67’s.
The two teams are now tied with 38 points but due to regulation and overtime wins (ROW), the 67’s are officially ahead of the Steelheads in the standings.
Here are five takeaways from a tumultuous but still hopeful weekend for the blue-and-white.
Generals have the Steelheads’ number
The Steelheads’ toughest opponent seems to be the Oshawa Generals. They have lost all of their three battles with the Generals so far this season, to a total scoreline of 17-6.
Goaltender Jacob Oster has been a major factor in that result, posting a 0.933 save percentage across the three games. He also made at least 30 saves in each of his appearances against the Steelheads last season split between the Guelph Storm and the Generals.
Beyond Oster, the Generals’ offence was just too much for the Steelheads to handle. They scored six unanswered goals on Wednesday and four unanswered on Friday, dominating the second and third periods of both games.
“Their top six was better than our top six today,” Steelheads head coach James Richmond said after Friday’s loss.
Oshawa’s top six forwards are big, strong and skilled all at once, allowing them to impose a challenging game on the Steelheads with a heavy forecheck and swift cycle around the net. They trapped the Steelheads in their zone and dominated the neutral zone, forcing a lot of turnovers out of a young Mississauga squad.
The Steelheads' season-long penalty issue came up again late in both games against the Generals and the second period against the 67’s, but Richmond was quick to point out after Friday’s game that discipline applies to making decisions in other aspects of the game as well.
“It's not just about the penalties but undisciplined plays with the puck that we've talked about, talked about and talked about,” he said. “Three of them tonight, we gave them goals.”
On Wednesday, after Oshawa’s first goal came off a turnover, Richmond said his team was undisciplined and “sulked” in the second and third periods. On Friday, goals came off a neutral zone turnover by Parker von Richter, a missed pass by goaltender Ryerson Leenders and a powerplay goal after an unnecessary roughing penalty by MacDonell, among other defensive lapses.
“That's what's killing us,” Richmond said of the lack of poise.
It should be mentioned, however, that forcing turnovers is also a big part of the Steelheads’ game when they are at their best. In the first and third periods against Ottawa, the Steelheads' forecheck was a force to be reckoned with even for the 67’s, who have the second-fewest goals against in the OHL.
Short bench an issue on Friday, but gutsy effort on Sunday rights the ship
The Steelheads entered Wednesday with a full lineup, though Adam Zidlicky is still overseas to play for Czechia at the World Juniors. However, they left the game short two more players, as Luke Dragusica received an automatic two-game suspension for taking a game misconduct penalty in the dying minutes and Lucas Karmiris was injured.
On Friday, William Haley stepped in for Dragusica and the Steelheads went with 11 forwards. However, Marc Boudreau received a game misconduct penalty after he hit Thomas Stewart high on the boards in the first period, which earned him an indefinite suspension updated to four games. Later, Jakub Fibigr took a spill into the boards feet-first and left the game with an injury.
Before Sunday’s game, the Steelheads made a trade to add defenceman Reed Gee from the Flint Firebirds in exchange for draft picks. He slotted into Fibigr’s spot in the lineup but with Dragusica, Boudreau and Karmiris also out, the Steelheads iced just 10 forwards and six defencemen. After the game, Richmond said he was awaiting details on Fibigr’s timeline but expected him to be out at least four weeks, while Karmiris is expected to miss four to six weeks.
Friday’s result was evidence of what can happen when a shorthanded team runs out of gas and loses control of the game. Richmond was not thrilled that his team made the game more difficult for themselves.
“It's really hard [to play with a short bench]. And the players should know that instead of taking dumb penalties,” he said.
“We talked about it in between periods,” he added. “‘Don't take penalties.’ What do we do? Take penalties. We gotta fix it.”
On Sunday, the Steelheads still allowed five powerplays against but were able to kill them off and were more disciplined in the third period. There were also two fights, as MacGregor Richmond and Haley each had their first career OHL fights – MacGregor fought a much larger opponent in Charlie Hilton and Haley took on Cooper Foster after he caught Angus MacDonell with a hit to the head in open ice (earning him a six-game suspension). MacDonell did not return to the game but no update has been given on his status.
“We're young but we really stick together,” Richmond said after the game. “Sometimes it gets us in trouble with the lack of discipline [...] but what they did today was pretty good.”
One of the bright spots for the Steelheads on the weekend was the opportunity for depth players to step into bigger roles. MacGregor, for example, slotted in as the third-line center and was stellar at the faceoff dot on Friday and Sunday, winning 16 of 23 faceoffs he took.
Like MacGregor, Kieran Witkowski and Gabriel Chiarot gave the Steelheads good minutes with heavy forechecking and even some skilled plays around the net. Witkowski had one of the game's best chances int he first period on Sunday, though he hit the side of the net.
Richmond said the team could not play with just two lines so a next-man-up approach was necessary.
“If we get the first-year players chipping in like that, we're gonna be good,” Richmond said after Sunday’s game.
Goaltender Jack Ivanovic was also appreciative of how the team played in a difficult situation, saying they embraced the same message they get from Richmond when they have the whole lineup: “Just compete.”
“I think we did that here tonight,” he said.
Reed Gee addition likely just the first move for Richmond
Even if the depth was good for Mississauga on Sunday and they showed they can win with a short bench, there is almost certainly a need for them to make a move at forward.
With Boudreau suspended until Jan. 5, Zidlicky returning from the World Juniors on Jan. 6 and Karmiris out until mid-January, the Steelheads only have 10 forwards on their roster for their first three games after the holidays on Dec. 28, 29 and 31. All of the other players they used in pre-season action have since been moved except Liam Spencer, who they could call up from the GOJHL to play as a seventh defenceman but a trade feels like the better guess.
Richmond showed off his willingness to make moves on the weekend when he traded for Gee before Sunday’s game. He moved three draft picks in the deal, though he also got one back from the Firebirds.
Richmond said the Steelheads have been trying to get a defenceman, and he might have meant Gee in particular, for about a month. He said adding Gee made sense given he was a 2006-born player who could play for the Steelheads for three seasons.
“He's gonna be good for us,” Richmond said of the Kingston product, highlighting that he is a “big body” who plays physical. This showed up when Gee attempted to fight Brady Stonehouse but ended up with a roughing penalty when Stonehouse did not drop the gloves.
Otherwise, Richmond said he is willing to make a move if it makes sense, but he does not want to mess around with the team culture. The Steelheads are young and know they have a bright future beyond this season.
“We've built something for next year and the year after,” Richmond said. “That doesn't mean we can't maybe surprise some people this year with the right moves.”
He said the team is not looking for any specific moves like they were last year – when they moved Ethan Del Mastro and Luca Del Bel Belluz for MacDonell and Porter Martone, and Owen Beck for Jack Van Volsen – but they are looking at what is out there
“We’ve got lots of cards” he said on Friday.
Pair of Jacks wins the hand on Sunday
While Jack Ivankovic battled his way to an impressive 35-save win on home ice, another Jack, Jack Van Volsen, broke out of a scoring slump. It was a good note to start the holiday break on for both players and undoubtedly the Steelheads as a whole.
Van Volsen’s goal on Sunday was his first goal and point since returning from a lower-body injury, in his seventh game back. It was his first point since a 5-2 Steelheads win over the Owen Sound Attack on Nov. 11.
Van Volsen, the sixth overall pick in the 2022 OHL Draft, has not quite lived up to expectations but is becoming a serviceable two-way player for the Steelheads. He is a solid penalty killer, has at times been good on faceoffs – he won 26 of 46 faceoffs he took this week, 57% – and has offensive abilities. It is just about getting everything to click.
Van Volsen’s goal on Sunday was a one-timer on the powerplay, showing off his powerful shot. If he can continue to hit the net with that shot – he missed a couple times on Sunday – he could become a more reliable middle-six forward for the Steelheads.
Ivankovic, meanwhile, has played up to and above the standards set for him as a rookie goaltender. 16-year-olds do not often stand out the way Ivankovic has this year, though he is an even more fascinating case given he is playing behind a goalie who did the same last year in Ryerson Leenders.
Ivankovic said after Sunday’s game he and Leenders have a good relationship where they push each other to be better.
“If the time comes I go in net, I'm gonna play my strongest," he said. "But [Leenders and I] definitely have a good friendship."
Ivankovic was awarded the first star of the game, the OHL performer of the night and the OHL save of the night on Sunday.
Ivankovic made a lot of highlight-reel saves on Sunday as he used his agility to keep pucks in front of him. One thing that stands out is his composure, especially on the penalty kill, which he says is part of who he is.
“I think I started that ever since I was young [to] stay composed and never let anything bother me,” he said.
If Ivankovic continues to play as well as he has through the back half of the season, the Steelheads are going to have nothing to worry about in goal, this year and for a few more.
This Week’s 3 Standouts
1. Porter Martone
This was an obvious first choice. Martone scored two goals on Wednesday and followed it up with two more on Friday, cementing his lead on the team in goals with 24 (and 42 points) in 31 games. Though his seven-game point streak ended on Sunday, he was also the Steelheads’ best player – aside from Ivankovic – in that game.
Once again, Martone succeeded alongside different linemates over the week. He mostly played with MacDonell and Misa but like all of the Steelheads forwards, took shifts alongside almost everybody. He also had a goal alongside Kieran Witkowski and MacGregor Richmond.
Martone used his skill to create chances out of nothing and scored both on shots and getting to loose pucks in front of the net. His only downfall, however, was discipline. While he was undoubtedly frustrated after taking a high hit on Friday, his antics in the back half were probably why his three-point night did not earn him one of the stars of the game.
“[Martone] had a heck of a game in Oshawa and a heck of a game here until the end when he lost his discipline,” Richmond said of his young star on Friday.
On Sunday, though, he said Martone was “unbelievable” on pucks.
2. Mason Zebeski
Zebeski had a good week for the Steelheads. His ability to create plays out of hard work and forechecking was apparent on Sunday especially but also earlier in the week, when he was buzzing in the offensive zone. He had four shots on goal each on Wednesday and Sunday, though it very well could have been more.
His hand-eye to deflect pucks in the slot was especially noticeable on Sunday, when he also scored an awkward goal, banking a shot-pass off a defender from behind the 67’s net.
The most important thing for Zebeski was he was tenacious without crossing the line. He was aggressive and threw hard checks, but managed not to take any penalties. He also continued to be a force on the penalty kill – where he often plays at the top of the zone chasing down pucks and cutting off lanes – and blocked a lot of shots. He was +1 on Friday despite the lopsided score and received the third star of the game, which he also received on Sunday.
Richmond said he thought Zebeski had a “really strong game” on Sunday.
3. Zander Veccia
I already mentioned Zebeski as well as MacGregor Richmond and his faceoff prowess, so it seemed fitting to mention another Steelheads forward who played an aggressive but clean game this week.
When he is at his best, Zander Veccia is one of the Steelheads’ energy bugs. He is speedy and not afraid to play in the corners, so even when he is not getting on the scoreboard, he creates a lot for his team and wears down opponents.
On Sunday, though, he did produce, scoring the empty-netter to ice the game to add to a sweet cross-ice assist on Van Volsen’s powerplay goal. Veccia now has 26 points in 31 games this season, good for fourth on the team.
The Steelheads are now on holiday break, so they do not play until Dec. 28. Intermission Sports will continue to have you covered on all things Steelheads and the OHL over the holidays and beyond.