By: Mitchell Fox
Wednesday, Jan. 10 – 2-1 W @ Sudbury Wolves
Thursday, Jan. 11 – 4-2 L @ North Bay Battalion
Sunday, Jan. 14 – 3-1 L VS Sarnia Sting
Despite winning the night after the OHL trade deadline, the Mississauga Steelheads were unable to start the second half of the season with a winning week. With a flu affecting the team, the Trout finished their first week since trading Zander Veccia with two points, despite three close scorelines.
On Wednesday, about seven hours after the trade deadline, Ryerson Leenders’ 46-save performance powered the Steelheads to a 2-1 victory over a stacked Sudbury Wolves roster.
Thursday saw the Steelheads fall 4-2 to another team that added at the trade deadline, the North Bay Battalion. Anthony Romani’s hat trick gave him his third three-plus point performance against Mississauga just this season.
To finish off the week, the Steelheads hosted the Sarnia Sting for a Sunday matinee. Playing a team that had allowed 16 goals in two games earlier in the week, they lost 3-1 thanks to a 33-save performance by Nick Surzycia.
Here are five takeaways from a flu-ridden week for the Mississauga Steelheads.
Flu bug means Steelheads not at their fullest and best
The first week or two after the trade deadline often offers a taste of what a team will look like for the remainder of the season. For the Steelheads, this week was not so indicative. Their team mostly remained the same through the deadline and while some trends in their play stuck, they did not quite look like themselves.
Steelheads head coach and general manager James Richmond’s revelation after Sunday’s game the team had been facing a flu bug all week gave insight into some curious lineup decisions and low energy levels.
Richmond revealed about eight of the Steelheads had been sick for the road games earlier in the week and some were still affected on Sunday. He did not give specifics but said it was a matter of picking the guys who were least sick to play on the road trip. On Sunday, he said, he did not even set the lineup until everyone was at the rink.
“The guys that threw up closer to the game time, they didn't play. The guys that threw up in the daytime, we played them,” he said.
“It was tough to do,” he added. “It's not the NHL where we just call guys up from the [American Hockey League]. So it stinks.”
On Wednesday, Jakub Fibigr was originally expected not to make his return from injury but ended up playing, with Chas Sharpe instead sitting out. On Sunday, Stevie Leskovar was on the gamesheet as a reserve seventh defenceman. Leskovar was on the bench for at least a portion of the game but was not eligible to play.
The sickness is not an excuse for the Steelheads’ play – they still had healthy players and looked lost at times on Sunday – but it does explain the coaching staff using certain players more or less than others. The fourth line played a fair bit despite struggles in the first period, while some middle-six players were less noticeable than usual. Luke Dragusica also played many more minutes than Reed Gee in the first two periods, a bit of a diversion from expected.
Richmond said having two days off due to the flu might have affected the team’s play on Sunday, but they still could have been better. Giveaways and generally moving slowly in the defensive zone were two key areas of concern, as well as not finishing the chances they had.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Richmond said.
Steelheads’ first line is driving the bus
The Steelheads have depended on their core players all season but this week, those players took on more of the load than the team would prefer.
Luke Misa and Angus MacDonell scored all four of the Steelheads’ goals during their road trip to Sudbury and North Bay. They along with Porter Martone each had three points across the two games and were the driving force in both games. On Sunday, though they did not get on the scoreboard, their line created a lot of chances, especially on the powerplay.
While the first line has been solid, the rest of the Steelheads' lineup has not provided a ton of offence. Misa and MacDonell combined for 10 of their 19 shots against Sudbury on Wednesday, while Lucas Karmiris, Jack Van Volsen and Dean Loukus were all held without a shot. The load was more spread out on Thursday and Sunday, though the first line stood out. It is expected for the team’s offence to run through the top line, but under 80 shots across three games could be cause for concern.
The Steelheads’ middle six did score an important goal in the third period on Sunday, tying up the game. However, the Sting would take the lead back less than three minutes later and that would lead to a quiet finish.
The Steelheads were stumped offensively. They had chances once they got set up, but getting there did not come easy and many of those chances missed the net or were stopped by a confident goalie in Surzycia.
“We had a lot of chances, point-blank chances, to score and we didn't score,” Richmond said. “We weren’t sharp.”
Ryerson Leenders is more than earning his flowers
Ryerson Leenders has started eight straight games for the Steelheads, more than proving his ability as a reliable starting goaltender with Jack Ivankovic out of the lineup due to injury.
Though the Steelheads have had good games and periods of limiting the chances against Leenders, he has faced 287 shots across those eight games, including 35 or more in five of them.
Leenders has a 0.937 save percentage in that stretch, culminating in a 0.914 save percentage in 30 games this season. That mark leads the league and is a testament to Leenders’ status as a top-tier goaltender in this year’s NHL Draft – he was ranked third among North American goaltenders on NHL Central Scouting’s Midseason Rankings this week.
The Nanticoke, Ont., product’s workload has increased to playing all three games in three-in-three weekends and playing back-to-back games on the road, yet he has not faltered in providing the goaltending the Steelheads need.
Through six games in 2024, Mississauga have not lost by more than two goals. Leenders was pulled for an extra skater in all four losses, a testament to the Steelheads having been close enough for a last-ditch effort. They allowed an empty net goal in three of those games, perhaps proving the cost of taking Leenders out of the goal.
The Steelheads’ two wins in 2024 have come on a shutout and a 46-save, one-goal-against performance for Leenders. Relying on him to stop all or all but one of the many shots he faces is certainly playing with fire, though quality goaltending is a staple of the Steelheads’ identity in the new era that began at last year’s trade deadline.
As for Ivankovic, Richmond said he hopes to have the rookie goaltender back next week, as he skated for the first time on Saturday.
Mistakes make the difference
Watching Sunday’s game, one might wonder how the Steelheads came away with just one goal.
Part of the answer is their mistakes were too costly, while they did not make their opponents’ mistakes costly enough.
Those mistakes include defensive lapses, turnovers and unnecessary penalties. On Sunday, in addition to four early penalties, the issue was defending the point and clearing players from in front of their goalie – two of the Sting’s goals were scored on wrist shots from the point with Leenders screened and no wingers challenging the shooter (Lukas Fischer’s goal was on the powerplay, but the fact remains). The empty-net goal, meanwhile, came after Martone was stripped of the puck while making a deke trying to enter the Sting zone.
The Steeheads did not look entirely engaged defensively, leaving too much room for players to walk in from the point. They defended the rush well and limited the Sting to only 23 shots but instead gave their opponents chances by forcing passes in transition and getting caught out of position. When the Sting did get set up in a cycle, the Steelheads were caught chasing.
On offence, the Trout were not at top speed and did not show the playmaking skill they showed against Kingston and London a week ago. When they did create chances, they hit a lot of posts, missed the net on high-danger opportunities and struggled to pick up loose pucks in the slot.
“We were not sharp. And again, stupid penalties,” Richmond summarized post-game on Sunday.
This Week’s Standout Players
1. Ryerson Leenders
I talked about Leenders and the season that he has had already, but it would be a mistake not to make him the first star and number one standout of the week.
Leenders was stellar on Wednesday, arguably stealing the Steelheads a win with 46 saves in a game they only took 19 shots of their own. While the Steelheads tend to play less of a run-and-gun style, the Wolves play a high-octane game with a lot of shots and goals most of the time. Leenders held them to just a goal. It was the first time Sudbury scored less than three goals in a game since Nov. 24 and one of only four games in which they have allowed less than two.
On Thursday, Leenders made 35 saves, once again handling a heavy workload even if his team could not score enough for a win. His stats on Sunday were not as stellar but the two goals he allowed involved shots through traffic where he could not do much to change the outcome. He also made multiple highlight-reel saves over the week, including this one.
2. Angus MacDonell
MacDonell had two goals and three points this week, all in the first two games.
Though he did not necessarily stand out on Sunday, nobody on the Steelheads did, except for a few moments. He did lead the team in shots on goal with six and had 14 shots for the week, a mark of just how involved he is in Mississauga’s offence. MacDonell looks to be back from his concussion and to be progressing as the season goes on, even as an NHL-drafted prospect already.
When he is healthy and at his best, MacDonell drives the Steelheads’ first line as its center. His physical presence combined with his knack for finding the puck in tight quarters is important to the line’s offence and he provides a steady and physical defensive presence. He showed that all week.
3. Dean Loukus
Though Loukus was one of the players sick with the flu, he had some strong moments throughout the week. He plays a regular middle six role but his important role was certainly reflected in playing on both special teams units. He appeared on the first powerplay unit with Martone, Misa and MacDonell and made some key plays in leading the unit into their setup.
His end-to-end zone entry and patient play to move the puck around the boards eventually led to MacDonell’s powerplay tally on Wednesday, as it opened up space for Martone, Misa and MacDonell to execute a slick passing play.
While moving Zander Veccia for four draft picks is the more recent move people will remember, Richmond was eager to remind of the acquisition of Loukus after Sunday’s game.
“Everybody forgets that we picked up a guy that has got 50 points every year,” he said, adding Loukus plays a good 200-foot game and is a respected locker room leader. “We're happy with that pickup. And we're happy with the picks that we picked up too.”
“He plays a heavy game [and] his details to his game are really good,” Richmond added. “He'll get scoring.”
As for trading away Veccia, Richmond said the Steelheads were happy to add the second, third, fourth and fifth-round picks to their draft cupboard to help build towards being good when they should be.
Richmond said the prices going around for players at the deadline meant it did not make sense to pay for another player, but he is confident with what they have and happy to have gotten a good return for Veccia.
“We can win the East with this team,” he said. “We have to play better than we did today, obviously. We need to be smarter and be more disciplined, but yeah, we're good.”
The Steelheads will hope to get back to health and get their energy and discipline going this week. A Thursday matchup with the Niagara IceDogs will feel like a must-win, while weekend games against North Bay and the Brantford Bulldogs will be no easy task.