By: Mitchell Fox
Thursday, Jan. 18 — 2-1 W @ Niagara IceDogs
Friday, Jan. 19 — 4-3 L vs North Bay Battalion
Sunday, Jan. 21 — 3-0 L vs Brantford Bulldogs
For the sixth week in a row, the Mississauga Steelheads lost more games than they won this week, finishing with three of six possible points.
The Steelheads kicked off the week with a victory over the Niagara IceDogs, though a 2-1 win over a team near the bottom of the standings did not feature the gap expected. Ryerson Leenders had 33 saves and Dean Loukus scored his first goal as a Steelhead in the game.
On Friday, the Steelheads pulled off a striking comeback to secure overtime in the final minute of regulation but were dominated by a stronger, more experienced Battalion squad in the extra frame.
Much of Sunday’s matchup with the Brantford Bulldogs was close as anticipated but costly errors and a lack of scoring meant the Steelheads fell victim to Matteo Drobac’s second shutout of the season.
Later in the week, Ryerson Leenders and Luke Misa played in the CHL Kubota Top Prospects Game, earning a chance to show off their abilities against the best draft-eligible players from all over Canada.
Here are five takeaways from an exciting week of hockey for Mississauga.
Steelheads coming down to Earth
There is no secret the Eastern Conference is jam-packed. Mississauga sat on the top of the conference for much of the first month or two of the season, before moving into a battle for the top three or four places. Now, more than halfway through the season, the top five teams are separated by five points, while the top seven teams all have between 20 and 23 wins.
Mississauga currently sits fifth in the conference and while they have at times looked like they belong in a competition for the top spot, they are starting to settle into a position as a middle-of-the-pack team.
The Steelheads have not won back-to-back games since Dec. 3 – 18 games – and have only won six games in that time, resulting in a plummeting record.
Though they have not been up to par as a top contender in the OHL, the Steelheads are benefiting from the fact nobody in the East has been, except perhaps the Brantford Bulldogs, who have won five of their last six games, and Oshawa Generals, who have won 12 of their last 16. The Steelheads have also had stellar goaltending from Ryerson Leenders and have won many must-win games – against the IceDogs, for example – and some tight ones against tough opponents, like the Sudbury Wolves.
The IceDogs fought hard on Thursday but the Steelheads have to hope to make those games against teams near the bottom of the standings easier for themselves, especially in the first of three games in a few days. Brantford, who sold some pieces at the trade deadline, have found a rhythm of late and is a team the Steelheads will hope to beat next week, and beyond. North Bay proved their offensive strength in the first period and overtime on Friday, so getting a point is something, though not the desired result.
The week was not bad, but fighting for three of six points is quite indicative of the stretch of season the Steelheads are having. That said, getting back to winning ways is far from off the table with the roster they have.
Richmond remembered losing to the Battalion in six games in the playoffs a year ago and recognized how strong they can be.
“We have to prepare ourselves for series like this,” Richmond said, adding there is a long way to go before the playoffs.
“I think if we're healthy down the stretch and in the playoffs, we might surprise some people,” he added.
Scoring woes striking Mississauga hard
One of the biggest reasons for the Steelheads’ faltering success in recent weeks is they have not been scoring enough, especially in tight games their goaltender gives them an opportunity to win.
Mississauga currently sit 14th in the OHL in goals with 143, or about 3.33 goals per game. They have scored less than four goals in their last eight game, a fairly drastic change from how they scored in October and November. They averaged four goals per game up to Nov. 1, 3.6 goals per game in November, 3.27 goals per game in December and just 2.11 goals per game in January so far.
Finding the exact source of the Steelheads’ scoring problems is difficult but they are just not getting the types of chances needed to score more than a goal or two each game, and then not taking advantage of the opportunities they get.
Mississauga has dealt with sickness and injury — Mason Zebeski was sick for Friday and Sunday, while Reed Gee was a last-minute scratch due to difficulty shooting the puck on Friday and Jack Ivankovic is still making his way back from a lower-body injury — but they still have stars and depth that feels capable of scoring more.
Richmond said the team has been hit hard by a sickness, as Mason Zebeski was still out due to being ill over the weekend. He believes that is a big reason why they have not been scoring in recent games.
“I hate making excuses, but being sick is real,” he said. “They're trying hard, but they don't have the legs and when you don’t have the legs, your mind starts to make mistakes.”
Richmond added he was not too concerned.
“As we get our legs back and keep going and get healthy, we'll be fine.”
Without a doubt, fatigue is a factor. The question is how well they will be able to bounce back once the team is healthy. If they can look like they did in the third period on Friday regularly, they will be more than fine. If they look more like they did in the first period or have results like Sunday’s, a playoff run could become tougher.
Third period VS Battalion proved Steelheads’ potential
Though the game ended disappointingly for the Steelheads given their climb back in the second and third periods, Friday’s game with the Battalion was reflective of a lot that is going on in Mississauga, and a lot of what should be to come.
The Steelheads outshot the Battalion 17-2 in the third period, absolutely dominating the play by turning up the pace of the game and locking down the rush defensively.
The Battalion’s top players were stellar in the first two periods, with Anthony Romani getting his 10th point against Mississauga this season (he leads the league with 70 points and is second with 36 goals) and Dalyn Wakely scoring twice to get to 11 points against them this season. Owen Van Steensel and Ty Nelson also got two points.
Though those stars took control in the first half of the game and in overtime, the Steelheads proved in the third period they know how to shut teams down. Mixing defensive lockdown tactics with smart stickwork and taking away lanes with making smart decisions to maintain possession of the puck made them look dominant.
Steelheads head coach James Richmond said he thought his team did a good job coming back by being the better team in the last two periods.
“The third period was one of our best periods,” Richmond said after the game on Friday, adding his team simply did not get the puck in overtime against an older, harder team.
Richmond said the key to shutting down North Bay’s top lines even after they got rolling was to simply play to the gameplan.
“We did a good job of managing the puck and not giving up a lot,” he said.
If Mississauga can get healthy and keep up that play, they could get back to their winning ways of the first two months of the season.
Luke Misa and Ryerson Leenders earn Top Prospects Game nod
Because this article was running late, I decided to wait and include a nod to Luke Misa and Ryerson Leenders for their opportunity and performance glance at the CHL Kubota Top Prospects Game.
As it turned out, Leenders had a strong game for Team Red, symbolic of the season he has had with Mississauga. He made 19 saves on 20 shots in a little over 30 minutes of action, with a few highlight-reel saves to add to the drama. He might have been the strongest of four goaltenders in the game.
Leenders has been in a battle with Carter George as the top OHL goalie and possibly the top draft-eligible goalie this year. With the top prospects game being just one game, neither likely jumps far ahead but Leenders could have turned some heads.
Richmond said Leenders has been playing well but it would be good to get him a bit of a break. Jack Ivankovic is set to return from injury soon, so it seems likely the Steelheads will get him into a game next weekend.
Misa did not have such a stand-out game, finishing with a -1 rating and no points, but was playing in a perhaps imperfect situation. Misa played as Team White’s third-line center, lining up alongside London’s Sam O’Reilly, a red-hot OHL rookie with knacks for scoring and hounding the puck, and Kieron Walton, a big power forward who has proven to have some scoring ability with the Sudbury Wolves.
The line was intriguing on paper but there wasn’t a clear play-driver, especially in a one-off game. It might feel like that could have been Misa, but he was playing center, where he tends to focus on his smart two-way game and does not get to drive the wing as often, where he often excels. Still, his awareness and IQ are some of his best assets (alongside his skating, of course) and if he got to show that off, it could help his draft stock.
While other OHL forwards looking to prove their first-round projectability like Jett Luchanko (Guelph) and Beckett Sennecke (Oshawa) likely turned some heads with their play, Misa may not have. Still, he has plenty of season left to showcase his skills and two-way game.
This week’s three standouts
1. Adam Zidlicky
Adam Zidlicky might have been the most impressive Steelhead on Friday, even with Martone, MacDonell and Misa scoring their three goals.
Zidlicky was simply flying, looking like the high-energy piece he can be and needs to be to be his best and make the Steelheads their best. His assist to Angus MacDonell (part of a strong transition play with Porter Martone) was as close to perfect as it could get in that situation.
He had two assists over the weekend and a -1 rating but was definitely able to catch the attention of anyone watching. The only problem is he was also noticeable for his slew-foot penalty towards the end of the game on Sunday.
2. Lucas Karmiris
Karmiris did not amaze in the same way Zidlicky did with his speed but he might have been one of the Steelheads’ best players in the first half of the game on Friday where the Battalion badly outplayed them and he tied it into a strong week overall. He seemed to have more legs than some of his teammates, which he used on offence and getting back on defence.
The Brantford product received the third star on Sunday, in his 100th career OHL game, because although he did not have any points, none of the Steelheads did. There may have been a touch of home team bias in there but Karmiris did earn it with his overall play, including winning nine of 14 faceoffs he took.
Karmiris had one assist, a +1 rating and won 28 out of 50 faceoffs he took for the weekend.
3. Porter Martone
Martone could have been the number one standout thanks to his huge goal to tie up Friday’s game (one of his two points in the game), but some untimely penalties and a couple of defensive errors made me move him down.
The truth is Martone always stands out, as the Steelheads’ most dynamic and skilled player and one of the best of his age group. He is tied for fourth in the OHL with 29 goals for a reason. He also regularly scores important goals, proving something of a clutch gene as he did with the late goal on Friday.
The Steelheads play tonight at Paramount Fine Foods Centre against the Flint Firebirds before another battle with the Bulldogs on Sunday in Brantford. They will hope to grab at least a couple of points before heading out the following week on a five-game road trip.