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Steelheads Takeaways: Trout find four points, clinch playoff berth

Five players in Mississauga Steelheads uniforms skate to the bench
The Mississauga Steelheads head back to the bench after a goal by defenceman Stevie Leskovar on Feb. 23, 2024. (Mitchell Fox/INTERMISSION SPORTS)



Friday, Feb. 23 – 7-2 W VS Niagara IceDogs

Saturday, Feb. 24 – 4-1 L @ Barrie Colts

Sunday, Feb. 25 – 4-3 W VS Sudbury Wolves

The Mississauga Steelheads won two games over a three-in-three this week as they clinched a playoff spot and kept within reach of the top of the Eastern Conference.

Despite a second period to forget, Friday saw the Steelheads dominate the Niagara IceDogs on their way to a 7-2 victory, extending their winning streak to three games.

On Saturday, a short trip up to Barrie ended with a 4-1 loss thanks to another stellar performance by Sam Hillebrandt against the trout, this time a 43-save showcase.

The Steelheads finished off the busy weekend with a resilient 4-3 win over the Sudbury Wolves, who brought their hard-hitting and offence-first style. 

Here are some takeaways from a momentous weekend for the blue-and-white.

Steelheads clinch playoffs, need to play playoff hockey 

Mississauga entered the weekend sixth in the Eastern Conference, just a few points back of first. They finished the week in fifth and just two points back of third, thanks to beating another contender in the Wolves.

Looking at the schedule a week ago, back-to-back battles with Niagara and Barrie presented an opportunity for the Steelheads to not only stay in the top tier in the East but a chance to overtake a team or two.

The loss to Barrie – their first regulation loss in seven games – was not the result the Steelheads needed given the Colts’ position near the bottom of the standings and Mississauga’s struggles against them this season (a 1-3-1 record).

Nevertheless, the win over Sudbury the next day saved the weekend, clinching the Steelheads a playoff berth.

Now, there are 11 games remaining for the Steelheads to get themselves into the most favourable playoff spot possible and build good habits. Steelheads head coach James Richmond said it is all about playing “playoff hockey now” to win as many of those 11 games as possible.

Richmond was not happy with his team’s performance in the second period against the IceDogs on Friday. He said it was a selfish period where players were looking for a “point night,” as reflected in long shifts, bad line changes and selfish plays with the puck.

Last week, the Steelheads released a video of Richmond doing fist pumps after a win against the Owen Sound Attack. On Friday, it was different.

“They got fist pumps after the second, but they weren't good fist pumps,” he said after the game. “Why do I need to go in there and yell and scream? It's insane.”

“I told them, ‘Give me one shift. You all get one shift to show me you can play another shift,’” Richmond continued.

Richmond said the team’s best defensive period on Friday was in the third period, when they were cheating up the ice less. 

“It's funny how that works. Don't cheat in the D-zone, we have the puck in the offensive zone. You cheat and then we get stuck there. So we’ll fix it,” he said.

On Sunday, Richmond was happier after the game, and not only because his dog was standing between us during the interview. The Steelheads showed what they can do against a skilled team in the Wolves.

“We played a real strong game. That was a great team win,” he said.

The Steelheads have been gaining momentum. They finished February 7-3-2 and have earned four or more points in three straight weekends. The standings are still close, and building the right habits could help any team in any scenario.

“At the end of the day, we’re in a league where any team can beat anybody in a playoff series. So we're just focusing on getting to the playoffs and having a great playoffs,” Steelheads forward Mason Zebeski said on Friday.

Zebeski said the two weeks heading into Friday saw the team on a “massive trajectory upwards.”

“I think if we continue off those weekends, we'll do really good at the end of the year and continue that in playoffs,” he said.

Discipline still a topic of conversation for Mississauga 

On Sunday, the Steelheads’ penalty troubles reared their head in a menacing way. They gave up five powerplays in the game, along with some coincidental and fighting penalties, and gave up three powerplay goals. 

Richmond credited the goals against to Sudbury’s powerplay being “lethal,” as he compared it to a powerplay unit the London Knights had featuring Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk and Christian Dvorak in 2015-16. 

“You might be able to slow them down, but you're not gonna stop them,” he said of the Wolves’ powerplay after the game.

Richmond added his players were in position and read the plays, but were unable to stop the Wolves’ powerplay-ers from “zipping the puck around.” The Steelheads have proven capable on the penalty kill – their 80.5 per cent pk% is eighth in the league – but at second in the league in penalty minutes per game, they put themselves in difficult situations too often.

The trout went unscathed across five powerplays against between Friday and Saturday but they also had a handful of coincidental roughing calls and Angus MacDonell and Reed Gee were each kicked out of Friday’s game. MacDonell was also handed a two-game suspension, meaning the Steelheads were without their alternate captain for the rest of the weekend.  

The Steelheads also allowed the first powerplay against in all three games, continuing a troubling trend that could cost them in important games down the stretch where they need momentum early in the game.

Powerplay prevails against Niagara, then goes flat

On the flip side of the special teams coin, the powerplay has been a topic of interest for Mississauga.

The Steelheads’ powerplay currently sits at 19.8 per cent, second worst among teams who have clinched a playoff spot so far. 

A couple of weeks ago, they found success with Dean Loukus in the bumper position alongside Porter Martone and Luke Misa, while Jack Van Volsen’s shooting and solid puck movement from defencemen made a difference as well. With more of the team back in the lineup, some changes were made, which have clicked back into shape yet.

Mississauga scored two powerplay goals on three opportunities against the IceDogs on Friday, but they came late in an uneven game. They did not score in ten opportunities between Saturday and Sunday.

Richmond said the issue on Sunday was the Steelheads were not getting the puck to the net. They had some possession but were “playing around with the puck too much” rather than moving their feet to create better chances.

“We were just passing the puck around the outside. Nobody was shoooting it,” he said after the game.

Another issue for the Mississauga powerplay was getting anything started. Richmond said they were not very good on offensive zone faceoffs on the powerplay, which is reflected in the Wolves’ dominant 45-26 advantage in faceoffs in the game. They also lost the overall faceoff battle to the IceDogs (32-31) and the Colts (33-23).

The other issue was on zone entries, where the Steelheads’ strategy did not work. When they moved the puck back to create space for Luke Misa to rush up the ice, he would end up dishing the puck off to a player on the boards who could not do anything with it.

“We were struggling with the entries because guys are standing still,” Richmond said. “We're gonna work on it this week. That'll be a focus.”

The Steelheads will need to work out some kinks and find some more creativity on the powerplay in the last 11 games if they want to win special teams battles in the playoffs.

Zebeski and Zidlicky return just on time

After about a month off with a sickness, Mason Zebeski returned to the Steelheads’ lineup on Friday with two goals. He also added an assist on Saturday.

Zebeski had been on a six-game scoring slump when he went out with sickness after the Steelheads’ last game against the IceDogs on Jan. 18. Now, facing the same opponent, he looked more like the top-six winger he was earlier in the season.

Richmond said Zebeski took the first period to get his feet under him and made some mistakes in the second period – notably two spin-o-rama passes – but once the 18-year-old got back to his focused, net-driving style, he was happy with his play.


“It was great for him to come back. We need him back in the lineup,” Richmond said.

Zebeski said it was “super nice” to come back after the extended time off, which he had never experienced before in his career. He admitted he was rusty in the first period but felt better later.

“Once I got my puck touches going, I felt really good at the end,” he said. “I'm super happy to be back with the team.”

Zebeski said it was a mental and physical battle to get through the long break, but watching video helped him look forward to his return. The two goals, then, counted “a lot” for him.

“For the whole week, this week, before the games, I was watching a lot of positive clips just to bring my confidence back,” he said. “I think that really helped me with my confidence on the ice today, and it's just gonna grow from there.”

Another player who returned to the Steelheads’ lineup after dealing with a sickness was Adam Zidlicky. 

The Czech forward was cleared to play on Friday and rode a training bike, but had not skated at that point, according to Richmond. He played Saturday and Sunday and finished with no points, but he showed flashes of his usual speed and provided a physical presence in two hard-hitting games.

Getting Zebeski and Zidlicky back could not come at a better time for the Steelheads. They've had several injuries and sicknesses and a few suspensions lately and will need to get all of their depth rolling as they play 11 games over 22 days in March, including several matchups against fellow Eastern Conference playoff teams. 

This week’s three standouts:

1. Lucas Karmiris

Lucas Karmiris has been on a roll for the Steelheads, snatching an important role as their second-line center and playing well with MacDonell and Dean Loukus. 

The Brantford, Ont., product had 19 points in 12 games in February and has points in all but two of his last eight games.

This week, after recording his 50th career point on Friday, he posted a three-point night in a tight win over the Wolves in which he looked dynamic offensively and was routinely one of the first Steelheads back on the backcheck.

Richmond said Karmiris has been playing a “great 200-foot game” lately.

“He's played better and better every month,” he said. “Because he's playing so well defensively, he's getting a lot more offensive chances.” 

2. Luke Misa

Luke Misa should probably be on this list every week based purely on how interesting he can be to watch in so many games. His speed is captivating and though his pure skills and shot are not quite of the same tier, he creates a lot with his playmaking. 

Misa had five assists over the three-game weekend, as well as a +5 rating. He also played a part in other goals – namely Kieran Witkowski’s on Friday and Chas Sharpe’s on Sunday – through his ability to open up the ice for his teammates. 

Misa broke a Steelheads franchise record for assists in a season with 53 on Sunday. The previous high was Riley Brace’s 52 assists in 66 games, while Misa is on pace for 63. 

3. Marc Boudreau (HM: Stevie Leskovar)

I was having a difficult time choosing who to give this last spot to between the Steelheads’ two most effective physical presences. 

Stevie Leskovar has been effective as a towering defence-first blueliner with a physical edge. Better yet, he has taken just one penalty in his last eight games and had two points on the weekend, including a goal on Friday.

The bigger standout this weekend, however, was Marc Boudreau, who played in his 250th OHL game on Sunday. The 20-year-old is an important presence off and on the ice, where he had a strong weekend offensively and defensively. Notably, he also has just one penalty in his last 10 games, a significant difference from the start of the season.

Along with a goal and an assist, the Toronto product was a forechecking menace and forced numerous turnovers this week, contributing to a good weekend for the third and fourth lines in the offensive zone. 

Richmond said Boudreau’s goal was proof of the good shot he has shown in practice and the staff are encouraging him to use more often.

“Sometimes guys get in their head and just play up and down, crash, bang, and they forget about shooting,” Richmond said, adding Boudreau should have confidence at this stage in his OHL career. “It was good for him to get that one.”

Boudreau's reaction to Gabriel Chiarot’s game-winning goal against Sudbury on Sunday was also noticeable.

It was clear all game there was no love between the Steelhead forward and his former team, so he looked pumped to get the upper hand on them. That excitement reflected the team’s eagerness for their fourth-line rookies to get on the board and overall excitement for each other.

“They're all really going for each other,” Richmond said.

If things keep trending the right way and the Steelheads look as tight-knit as they have in recent weeks, they could make a mark heading into or in the playoffs. They will need to work out some kinks in discipline and the powerplay, but positive signs are showing up.  


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