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Steelheads takeaways: Mississauga win 2 of 3 to close out regular season

A player in a blue jersey with MacDonell on the back reaches for a puck on the red goal line as a goaltender in a white and green jersey reaches back
Angus MacDonell whacks at a puck ont he goal line just before scoring in a 5-4 Mississauga Steelheads loss to the North Bay Battalion on March 22, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Sean Ryan Photo)

BY: MITCHELL FOX


Results:

Sunday, March 17 – 7-2 W @ Brantford Bulldogs

Thursday, March 21 – 3-1 W @ Niagara IceDogs

Friday, March 22 – 5-4 L VS North Bay Battalion


Thanks to a four-point final week, the Mississauga Steelheads have completed their regular season with a franchise record in wins (38) and points (84).


Having won 12 of their last 16, the Steelheads finished the season fourth in the Eastern Conference. They will play the Sudbury Wolves in the first round of the OHL playoffs, starting at Paramount Fine Foods Centre on Thursday, Mar. 28.


Mississauga defeated the Brantford Bulldogs 7-2 on Sunday, Mar. 17, having done a lot of damage against Bulldogs backup goaltender David Egorov.


On Thursday, the trout got past a spoiler attempt by the Niagara IceDogs with a late comeback, as Mason Zebeski broke a 1-1 tie with just 31 seconds remaining.


Friday saw the Steelheads’ first regulation loss in 12 games, as OHL top-scorer Anthony Romani powered the North Bay Battalion to a 5-4 win in the last regular season game at Paramount Fine Foods Centre.


Here is my last batch of weekly takeaways, wrapping up a dramatic week for the Mississauga Steelheads.


Final week offered playoff matchups, stakes 

Matchups with Brantford and North Bay – and to some degree Niagara – at the end of the season offered the Steelheads a preview of what’s to come. 


The victory over Brantford was the Steelheads’ third-straight defeat of the Bulldogs, resulting in a 4-2 season series in their favour. It was a much-needed win for the Steelheads in the crowded Eastern Conference and they did it in dominant fashion, with seven goals as a product of a clicking power play and depth scoring.


The Bulldogs could have been the Steelheads’ first-round playoff opponent had the Wolves defeated the Oshawa Generals on Sunday, but instead, the test against Brantford is significant for the two points earned—Mississauga gets home ice over Sudbury as a result.


Beating the Bulldogs twice in March—by a combined score of 12-3—has to feel good as a mark of where the Steelheads stand in the playoffs—they have a chance in the East.


The story against North Bay is different. The season series concluded with North Bay winning five of six games, in large part due to the dominance of Anthony Romani and Dalyn Wakely, who had 13 and 14 points respectively. On Friday, with three points each, the two beat up on a Steelheads squad that otherwise played well and shut down the Battalion.


The Steelheads’ fightback late in the game—which made an empty-netter the game-winner—and their 41-29 advantage in shots was the bigger story for Steelheads head coach James Richmond, who said the difference in a “real good effort” on Friday was poor puck management on a couple of goals against. He liked the way his young team performed against the more experienced Battalion.


“It was a back-and-forth game, I thought,” he said. “What have they got, 12 19-year-olds? We’ve got one. So I think we're in good shape.”


He added the Battalion are a good, well-coached team and the Steelheads stuck with them all game.


“I guess it was good to play North Bay. I mean, they're big, they're heavy. They're built for the playoffs,” said Richmond.

 

The game against the IceDogs on Thursday also tested the Steelheads. Niagara was looking to play spoiler with nothing on the line and could have had Charlie Robertson not had to be pulled out of the game. The Niagara goaltender had 43 saves before being pulled with eight minutes to go, after which Luke Misa tied the game in a hurry. 


The late comeback saw the Steelheads put everything together and make the IceDogs work, even fighting off a late penalty. Mason Zebeski scored the game-winner with 31 seconds left and then Angus MacDonell hit the empty net less than 20 seconds later. 


Richmond pointed to a game on Dec. 28 where the Windsor Spitfires beat the Steelheads 5-3 at home as an example of how difficult the league can be. 


“The teams that aren't in the playoffs, it's hard to win against them. Windsor came in here and spanked us,” he said. “It's not an easy league to win in.”


With playoffs finally set, Steelheads look to carry momentum

In a fairly unprecedented fashion, the OHL playoff picture was not decided until the final games of the season concluded. 


When the puck was dropped between the Oshawa Generals and Sudbury Wolves on Sunday evening, the top five spots in the Eastern Conference were still unsettled. Mississauga could have finished fourth or fifth and could have faced either Brantford or Sudbury. 


After Friday’s loss to North Bay, the Steelheads sat third in the Eastern Conference with 84 points. They had completed their 68 games and posted team records, but had no control over their playoff matchup. 


Richmond said they were not putting too much weight on getting home ice advantage, as it was out of their control and they’ve done well on the road this year—their road record is 19-12-1-2.


“Our coaches will do our work on a couple of different teams and then get ready,” Richmond said after the game Friday. “Obviously if we get home ice, we'll be happy.”


When Brantford lost in overtime to the Kingston Frontenacs and Sudbury stomped Niagara on Saturday, they each sat one point behind Mississauga. When Brantford beat Ottawa on Sunday afternoon, Mississauga was booted to fourth. But then, the Wolves fell victim to the Generals extended their winning streak to 12 games on Sunday evening.


For the East to be so close in the final weeks was a testament to the competition level within the Conference. There are a lot of strong teams in the OHL, and Mississauga is going to have to play the way they have in their last 20 games to push through to the top.


The Steelheads lost just two of their last 20 games in regulation, along with losing four in overtime. They found ways to generate points, including by winning or getting to overtime in close games and by dominating teams. The next step will be carrying that momentum into the playoffs, even with a six-day break before Thursday’s game one—their longest break between games since the holiday season.


Richmond was largely unconcerned with the loss to North Bay or knowing what exactly would come next.


“We've lost two in regulation in 19 games. We do that the next round here, we'll be alright,” he said on Friday.


The Steelheads coach also said he was proud of his young team for setting records and proving what they could do in a tough league.


“As a tear-down, rebuild, team that set a record for most points of the season, I'm pretty proud of them,” said Richmond.


Pucks are staying out, but what’s the goaltending plan? 

Over the last 20 games, the Steelheads have given up four or more goals in a game six times, in all of their losses and just once in a win. It shows they have the scoring—at least since mid-February—to win games as long as they keep other teams to three goals or fewer. 


They’ve had help from their goaltenders keeping goals out of their net. There have been a few outlier games, but for the most part, Ryerson Leenders and Jack Ivankovic have been rock solid. 


“Both guys have been playing really well,” said Richmond.


Ivankovic allowed four goals on 28 shots against North Bay on Friday, but the goals were mostly scored by a wide-open Battalion forward off a turnover. With big points on the table in the last regular season game in his hometown, it could not have been an easy game. 


Ivankovic finished with a 14-5-4-0 record and a 0.915 save percentage (sv%) this season. He has played six of the last 10 games, winning five and allowing three or less in all except Friday’s loss—his sv% in that stretch is 0.927. 


That said, it feels like Leenders has to be the starter in game one. 


Holding a 24-17-4-0 record and league-best (with enough games played) 0.909 sv%, Leenders has gotten more and tougher starts all season, except the last ten games, when Richmond and company wanted to keep both of their goalies as fresh and tested as possible. The emphasis was more on team defence in front of Leenders and Ivankovic, as they would prefer not to count on their goalies to bail them out of every game in the playoffs.


Richmond said in the OHL, the target is to keep the opponent to under 30 shots. The Steelheads have been outshot just once in their last 13 games and allowed 30 once, and more than 30 just twice, in that time.  


The Steelheads have averaged 32.5 shots for and 33.6 shots against this season. They have allowed an average of 31 shots per game against the Battalion this season, and 33.83 against the Wolves. 


Richmond pointed out it can be difficult to adhere to the 30-shot goal. Players are young and make mistakes, as they did on Friday when turning pucks over. He said the difference between the big leagues and junior is players are still developing.


“When you get to the NHL, it's either you can make the play or can't make the play. The coach isn't trying to develop anybody when he gets there,” he said. “It's either you're a ripe banana, or you're not. You're green, you're not ready to play.”


“Here we’ve got green bananas,” he added. “Some nights, we get yellow bananas. Sometimes we get green bananas. That's the way it is.”


It’s time for the “big guys” to take over

Richmond has talked about the importance of the Steelheads’ key players being their key players in tight games and moments. Now, as the stakes get highest in the playoffs, those players are going to have to step up even more.


Luke Misa, Porter Martone, Angus MacDonell and Chas Sharpe have been the Steelheads’ top four scorers this season for a reason—they are the most promising prospects on the roster, while Sharpe is the most experienced (alongside Dean Loukus and Marc Boudreau).

 

The four “big guys” combined for 13 points and scored seven of the Steelheads’ 14 goals this week, including some of the most important goals. Misa scored the game-tying goal against Niagara, while he and Martone had the Steelheads’ last two goals in the third period against North Bay. They lost the game, but the fightback showed they won’t give up in playoff games.


Richmond was not surprised to see his star players step up in the biggest moments.


“That's what the big guys do. They score in big games,” he said. 


Richmond also pointed out the age of those players as part of what makes them special. MacDonell is the Steelheads’ only NHL-drafted prospect, while seven players, including Misa, are draft-eligible this year and others, including Martone, are not even draft-eligible yet. Sharpe is one of three overage players, while Stevie Leskovar is the only 19-year-old. 


“It’s been pretty neat watching this team grow the way they did this year. I was proud of them,” he said.


Richmond said Martone was rusty entering Thursday after a couple of weeks off with a hand injury, but the young star clearly knocked it all off by the end of Friday’s game. 


“It was great to get him back yesterday. And now we just gotta hope we can get [Dean Loukus] back and maybe [Luke Dragusica] back,” he said.


Richmond said Loukus, a trade deadline acquisition, has a “day-to-day” injury and is hopeful for game one. He will be an important player for the Steelheads to get back, as he sits fifth in points and is likely their best all-around forward thanks to his high IQ. 


Crowd shows for last regular season game at PFFC

In an interesting twist, the trajectory of the Steelheads’ season took quite a turn after the announcement they would be moving to Brampton and the CAA Centre next season. The news came on Jan. 31 ahead of an extended road trip, while the tide turned for the team at the end of that same road trip. The Steelheads had not won back-to-back games since Dec. 1 and 3 when they did so Feb. 8 and 9. 


Since Feb. 8, Mississauga has lost just two games in regulation. In that stretch, they have outscored opponents 89-59, while looking like a much more complete team than they did in December and January.


Richmond said there was not a lot of talk about the move within the team, but he knows the players are excited. 


“It's kind of bittersweet,” he said. “I've been here for eight years. It’s been a great place to play and win hockey games—we've never missed the playoffs.”


The fact the Steelheads clinched a playoff spot well before Friday’s game and a snowstorm could have kept fans away, but the 3,678 fans recorded in attendance provided an infectious atmosphere. It even seemed the Steelheads players were building energy off the crowd’s “Go Steel Go” chants as they tried to come back late.


Richmond said the crowd that night was “pretty cool” and he thinks fans will follow the team up the road to CAA Centre. But first, the focus is on what they can do with their time left in Mississauga.


“We'd love to win the East and win it here on home ice. No question,” he said. 


This week’s three standouts

1. Mason Zebeski

Mason Zebeski is an easy choice for a standout this week based on stats alone. Zebeski had three goals and six points in the three games, mounting a three-game points streak to end the season red hot.


The Oakville product scored twice on Sunday and followed it up with the game-winner on Thursday, giving him 10 goals and 15 points in his last 14 games. 


In his strong finish to the season, Zebeski has found ways to score as a relentless net-front presence and as a shooter, making him a key player for the Steelheads heading into the playoffs.


2. Chas Sharpe

Sharpe had four points and might have been the Steelheads’ best player in their win over the Bulldogs. 


All of his points in that game came on the powerplay—he added an even-strength assist on Friday—which is noteworthy ahead of a playoff series against Sudbury. Sharpe’s play as a quarterback and shooter on the blue line will be counted on in high-offence games.


Sharpe has also been a defensive stalwart and a leader. His composed and structured game keeps opponents at bay while showing his young teammates how to keep things simple. He showed that this week, especially when trailing North Bay.


3. Jakub Fibigr

I was going to give this award to one of MacDonell and Misa but Fibigr was a hard one to leave off the list. 


The Czech defenceman had five assists this week, including three on Sunday, two as part of a dynamic powerplay with Sharpe. Though he has clicked well with Sharpe, he has also clicked with Finn Harding, a pairing Richmond has liked in recent weeks. His speed, passing ability and rush defending made him work well in many situations and pairings for the Steelheads this week.


Fibigr closed out the regular season on a five-game points streak and with 13 points in his last 11 games. 


NEXT: Intermission Sports will cover the Mississauga Steelheads in the OHL Playoffs, with previews, game stories and more.






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