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Steelheads Takeaways: Mississauga takes 2 of 3 over challenging weekend


Five players in white Mississauga Steelheads jerseys congratulate each other after scoring a goal, while Soo Greyhounds players skate back to their bench.
The Mississauga Steelheads celebrate a goal by Marc Boudreau. (Mitchell Fox/INTERMISSION SPORTS)

By: Mitchell Fox


RESULTS:

7-1 W VS Peterborough Petes

5-0 W @ Erie Otters

5-2 L VS Soo Greyhounds


Despite an inconvenient schedule, the Mississauga Steelheads won two of three back-to-back-to-back games over a weekend marked with milestones.


The Steelheads started off the weekend with an impressive showing against the top team in the Eastern Conference, beating the Peterborough Petes 7-1. They left almost immediately for a nighttime over-the-border bus trip to Erie, PA., where on Saturday, they defeated the Erie Otters 5-0 thanks to a 48-save shutout by Jack Ivankovic. After heading back to Mississauga overnight again, the Steelheads lost 5-2 to the second-best team in the OHL, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds on Pucks N Paws night.


Steelheads head coach and general manager James Richmond said the squad will take four of six points, especially considering a three-in-three weekend, bus trips in between and three opponents who have been doing well in recent weeks.


“That's not an easy travel weekend for us,” he said after Sunday’s game. “[We] worked hard right to the end.”


Mississauga is now tied for the top spot in the Eastern Conference with the Petes at 28 points.


Here are some takeaways from a chaotic but high-achieving weekend for the Steelheads.


Five Steelheads achieve career milestones

Two wins were not the only thing the Steelheads walked away with this weekend. Several Steelheads reached career milestones during Friday and Saturday’s wins, which Richmond was glad to see.


“[There are] a lot of good things happening,” Richmond said. “They're all real happy for each other, so it's a lot of fun being on the team.”


The first milestone of the weekend came on Friday when Angus MacDonell scored his 50th career OHL goal. The goal would go on to be the game-winner, the sixth of the 18-year-old’s career. At the end of the weekend – in which he was a key piece for the Steelheads at all strengths, including a five-on-three penalty kill – MacDonell has 11 goals and 20 points in 21 games so far this season, well above his pace last year.


The biggest milestone came on Saturday when Jack Ivankovic earned his first career OHL shutout. The 16-year-old has been an important piece of the Steelheads’ puzzle, having not lost a game since his first career start. He is already among the smoothest side-to-side goalies in the OHL, making almost all of the stops he should and many he maybe shouldn’t.


Richmond said Ivankovic was the team’s best penalty killer in a game where they took too many penalties.


“He was dynamite,” he said of Ivankovic, adding he thinks it will be the first of many shutouts for the 2023 first-round OHL Draft pick.


Another milestone reached on Saturday was an important one for a player looking for all the accolades he can get in his NHL Draft season. Luke Misa earned his 100th career OHL point with an assist to Mason Zebeski, before finishing the game with three points and the weekend with seven. Though the super-speedy Misa’s hot start to the season was helped by a move to the wing, his move to center in recent weeks shows how valuable his defensive ability, faceoff skills and ability to drive his own line are to the Steelheads. He now has 33 points in 22 games this season, doubling his pace from last season.


Zander Veccia also achieved a milestone with his 50th OHL assist on Saturday. He had an impressive three-assist night with a +4 rating as a follow-up to a three-assist night on Friday, finding special chemistry with Misa and Zebeski. That trio may appear together often as the season progresses, especially if Veccia continues to play a valuable role setting up plays with his speed on the wing. He now has 15 assists, along with three goals, in 22 games this season, a 0.82 points-per-game pace.

Finally, joining Ivankovic in the discussion of players achieving momentous career firsts, Mason Zebeski had his first OHL hat trick on Saturday, leading the way for the Steelheads in a strong five-on-five performance against the Otters. Zebeski’s goal on Friday put his season total at six to surpass last year’s five, while the hat trick on Saturday brought him to 14 points in 22 games, a big step up from 11 points in 66 games last season.


Steelheads' offence shows its power and depth

The Steelheads might have had some troubles over the weekend, but scoring goals was not one. 12 goals in the first two games of the weekend was a clear expression of that, while nine goal-scorers in three games is a sign of scoring depth (including from the blue line).


Richmond said he was happy to get seven goals from his team no matter the opponent but was more focused on their strong 180-foot effort against a top team like the Petes.


“I'm more happy about only giving up one,” he said after Friday’s win. “We're starting to bring the shot totals down against us, so I'm really happy about that.”


The usual stars, Misa, Martone and MacDonell, combined for 14 points over three games, providing the high-end scoring that was lacking in their previous loss against the Ottawa 67’s. But a number of other players showed their skill and ability to play in the Steelheads’ offensive system, creating off the rush and the cycle.


In the top six, Zebeski had his hat trick as part of a four-goal weekend and Veccia had two three-assist games, while William Eggleton had a point each on Friday and Saturday playing alongside Martone and MacDonell.


Eggleton, a fourth-round pick from the 2022 OHL Draft, played in just 10 games in 2022-23. He has already doubled that this year and has improved immensely, having earned a lineup spot and more on more ice time after proving his skill and work ethic. Richmond says Eggleton just has to keep playing sound hockey.

“He plays with good pace, he's got great hands, he's got the size,” he said of the Mississauga product. “Those young guys have to learn how to play with structure and if they do, they'll play more and more. He's one of them.”


The third line of Adam Zidlicky, Marc Boudreau and Lucas Karmiris was effective but did not score a ton this weekend. They proved to be a rag-tag trio – Zidlicky and Boudreay have taken more penalties than Richmond would probably desire – and a strong defensive group but also to have surprising chemistry moving the puck around the offensive zone. There is a basis there for some offensive production.


The only line that did not score for Mississauga over the weekend was the fourth line of Gabriel Chiarot, Kieran Witkowski and MacGregor Richmond. Their absence on the scoresheet was mostly due to limited playing time thanks to the Steelheads allowing at least five powerplays against in all three games, though Richmond and Chiarot took some of those themselves.


The Steelheads have scored more than two goals in just one of their eight losses so far this season and have won just two games when scoring three or fewer. If Mississauga needs three goals a game on average to win, they need more than the big three to score. If the middle six looks as good as they did on Friday and Saturday, their scoring success should continue, if not improve.


The Steelheads need to play with speed, and Adam Zidlicky is proof

Richmond said after Friday’s win over the Petes that the Steelheads needed to be ready for the Otters to play fast on Saturday. As it turns out, not only did they succeed but they proved teams might just have to say the same thing about them.


Before Sunday’s game against the Greyhounds got away from the Steelheads, the first half did go both ways, if not in their favour. The first 25 minutes were a track meet, where lots of open ice in the neutral zone meant both teams could use their speed to create chances, though both defence groups were mostly able to keep the rush to the outside. In some ways, this favoured the Steelheads, as indicated by their 10-9 shot advantage in the first period.


The reason for this is they have some seriously speedy players. Misa is the most obvious example, along with Jakub Fibigr and the always-dynamic Martone. Eggleton and Witkowski can also sometimes surprise with their speed along the wing, but the real case study is Adam Zidlicky.


Zidlicky stood out on both Friday and Sunday because of his speed. His swift puck-handling through the neutral zone was paramount to the Steelheads getting into the zone and getting set up, including on the second powerplay unit. Marc Boudreau’s goal on Sunday was created largely by Zidlicky’s impressive end-to-end rush.

Richmond said on Friday that Zidlicky’s speed in the win over the Petes was an example of how he “can fly every day.”


“[Zidlicky is] so fast, it's crazy,” he said. “He's really good on the forecheck, he creates a lot of stuff, and he disrupts a lot of stuff.”


“He’s a great forechecker when he uses his speed,” Richmond added on Sunday. “I think he's starting to understand that he needs to do that to be effective.”


Richmond also pointed out the importance of Zidlicky using his speed effectively, something emblematic of the whole team. Like Misa last year, this year’s wingers tend to drive fast along the outside but not get to the front of the net. While good defending makes that difficult, using speed well in the middle of the ice could be a real asset for players like Veccia, Witkowski and especially Zidlicky.


“You can't drive on the side streets in fifth gear. You go on the highway for fifth gear,” Richmond said. “So he's gotta learn to use it.”


Zidlicky’s goal and assist on the weekend brought his season total to seven points. Though he is still below his scoring pace from a season ago – mostly due to eight straight games without a point heading into Friday – the 18-year-old showed he can be a meaningful contributor. But he can also be a chaotic player, sometimes taking undisciplined penalties or getting lost in a play due to a turnover.


“He's like a balloon that you let go, it goes all over the place,” Richmond said. “If he plays with some structure [...] he'd be really good.”


Let’s talk about special teams… again

I have written far too much about the Steelheads’ penalty troubles but it is still relevant all weekend long, even after Richmond told the media discipline was the one thing he wanted to see improve after Friday’s game.


If fighting majors and misconducts are included, the Steelheads took 30 penalties on the weekend. That culminated in 17 powerplays against. They killed all six that they faced on both Friday and Saturday, proving the capabilities of their penalty kill, which now sits seventh in the OHL at 81.5%.


On Sunday, however, Richmond’s team “got beat on special teams.” The Greyhounds goals included three powerplay goals, a shorthanded goal and an empty-net goal, a sample of how even a close five-on-five game can end up with a lopsided score.


The Greyhounds were just too efficient moving the puck around for the Steelheads’ penalty killers, who were inevitably tired after three games of extensive penalties and awkward travel. Richmond even addressed that issue on Friday, when he was clearly not impressed with four of his players taking misconduct penalties in the game.


“People say ‘Well, it doesn't mean anything.’ It does mean something because the other guys have to play,” Richmond said. “They get taxed, they get hit with pucks, they get cross-checked and everything, and then you start getting your teammates injured.”


While Richmond said he can pull his hair out at the team’s need to be disciplined, the powerplay is less concerning. It sits eighth in the league at 22.2% and scored three goals on the weekend.


The powerplay on Friday was most successful at entering and setting up in the offensive zone. When Misa, Martone, Fibigr and sometimes Zidlicky are carrying the puck in, it can be hard to stop them.


Once they are set up, the Steelheads have some interesting tendencies, which helped and harmed them this weekend.


A noticeable tactic for the Steelheads on the powerplay is to move the puck high to the blue line and have the two defencemen cross each other with the puck to earn one a clear shooting lane. They did it a lot all weekend and have for a couple of weeks.


The tactic worked on Friday. Fibigr scored a powerplay goal and though it came just after a powerplay ended, MacDonell’s goal earlier in the game was an even better example. The clip below starts too late, but as Zach Bodenstein alludes to on the broadcast, Chas Sharpe’s one-timer after a switch with Fibigr led to the puck getting to the sideboards.

The problem on Sunday was that the defencemen were ending up too far apart and the Greyhounds seemed to have the tactic figured out. When the Steelheads did get set up, they were not able to move the puck across the ice and were forced to the boards. They were held without a shot in their first powerplay of the game and had only three shots on five chances.


Still, they found a way to score on the powerplay, moving the puck lower and finding room for Porter Martone to shoot, undoubtedly a good plan.

So, the Steelheads’ powerplay, like any in the league, has its ups and downs. The question that remains is whether they might make some adjustments to their strategy or find ways to get around teams that might think they have it figured out.


Weekend standouts

The newest feature of my takeaways articles will be my own version of three stars: three standout players of the weekend. This does not necessarily mean it will include the three best players but rather the ones that caught my attention and maybe did not get the praise they deserved earlier in the article.


1. Ryerson Leenders and Jack Ivankovic

As Richmond said to media, Jack Ivankovic was the Steelheads’ best player and best penalty killer on Saturday, while Ryerson Leenders was their best player on Sunday.


Leenders also had a very good game on Friday, where the significance of his 26 saves was hidden by his team’s seven-goal performance. He also had to be an elite penalty killer and faced a lot of chaos in front of him, thanks to a game getting out of hand.


Leenders is a year ahead of the rookie Ivankovic but they are both early in their development and have lots of room to improve, a scary thing for all of the Steelheads’ opponents.


2. Mason Zebeski

Zebeski is one of the most tenacious players on the ice in every game he plays, chasing opponents down regularly and never backing down from a hit. He did take some penalties but his high-energy game and snarl are also key to his offensive abilities, which led to a four-goal weekend.


Zebeski’s best offensive asset might be his ability to get to scoring areas. Playing with speedsters like Misa and Veccia, he is often able to slide his way into the slot to bury a rebound or use his surprising hand-eye for deflections.


Richmond said Zebeski can be a lot of fun watching play when he is playing well.


“He's a big heavy guy that plays a power forward game,” he said. “When he really dials it in and focuses, he's one of the best ones.”


3. Parker von Richter

Parker von Richter made his return to the lineup on Friday after dealing with a lower-body injury and made a quick impression, scoring his first goal of the season and ninth point under two minutes in. He had 15 points in 66 games in his rookie season.


As a cherry on top, the Mississauga product’s goal on Friday came on the night the Steelheads hosted teams from his minor hockey franchise, the Port Credit Storm.


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