By: Mitchell Fox
The Mississauga Steelheads won all of their three games this weekend, taking two points each from the Guelph Storm, Saginaw Spirit and Erie Otters without giving any away. The result is a 7-1 record through three weeks of the season, putting the Steelheads at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Friday’s 3-2 victory in Guelph showcased the trout’s ability to win tough games, which was followed by a tumultuous 5-4 win at home against the Spirit on Saturday.
On Saturday, head coach and general manager James Richmond told the media the team was taking the tough weekend one game at a time.
“We know it's a hard three-in-three,” Richmond said. “So we take the first game, then park it. Take the second game, park it. And we'll get ready for the next one.”
That approach appeared to work, as after giving their goaltenders plenty of work on back-to-back nights, the Steelheads came outa little more dominant against the Otters on Sunday, swamping them in an 8-3 victory.
Here are some takeaways from a fun-filled three-game weekend for the blue-and-white.
Steelheads take six points from superpowered teams
All three of the Steelheads’ games over the weekend featured some of the OHL’s biggest names, as Guelph and Saginaw are two of the better teams in the league, while Erie is looking to take a serious step up with two of the most highly-touted OHL Draft picks in recent years.
Richmond early season wins are just as important as wins in February and March, so though the team is still experimenting with lines and tactics, and has work to do, he is glad things are working.
“If you went into this weekend and told me we would get two out of three, I would have taken it. We just got three in three,” Richmond said. “That’s not easy to do, especially with a young, young team.”
On Friday, in a matchup with one of the more underrated lineups in the OHL, it was the Steelheads’ leadership core that stole the show. Captain Chas Sharpe scored two goals to carry on a very impressive start to his season, while alternate captain Angus MacDonell – the only Steelheads player drafted to the NHL – scored the game-winner.
On Saturday, with star Michael Misa watching from the stands, the Spirit showed off their impressive star-power. 2022 Second-round NHL Draft picks Hunter Haight and Matyas Sapovaliv and 2021 Florida Panthers seventh-round pick Braden Haché scored their three goals, while upcoming draftee Zayne Parekh was a difference-maker all night. Nevertheless, Ryerson Leenders was the star of the show, coming up with 41 saves to lead the Steelheads to victory. The Steelheads’ goals came from Sharpe (his third goal in two games and sixth of the season), Mason Zebeski, Lucas Karmiris and Zander Veccia, but their best player was easily Luke Misa, whose three assists reflected his strong play-driving all night long.
On Sunday, Malcolm Spence and Matthew Shaefer, the 2022 second overall and 2023 first overall OHL Draft picks respectively, came to town. Another top prospect, Carey Terrance, hit the back of the net and established defenceman Spencer Sova proved to be a puck-moving machine, but Spence and Shaefer were shown up by Misa and his linemates. Misa scored a hat trick and had five points, while Zebeski had two goals and Karmiris had an assist and played important minutes as a two-way center. Jakob Fibigr also had three points, while Marc Boudreau had two goals.
Misa said he was not too surprised with the Steelheads’ strong start to the season.
“I think we have a really good young group, a lot of talent,” Misa said after Sunday’s win. “We are going to keep building on it.”
One point of concern for the Steelheads is Porter Martone was not the factor he might be expected to be this weekend. He had a very nice powerplay assist on Fibigr’s goal on Sunday but otherwise looked like a strong, but not difference-making, player on the ice. Sitting on the bench for eight minutes to start the third on Sunday after taking what Richmond called one of multiple “stupid penalties” after a whistle with less than a second to go in the second period did not help his cause.
“Nobody is going to be above the team here. Nobody,” Richmond said of the matter.
If Martone and MacDonell, along with Jack Van Volsen and Adam Zidlicky, can get their games going to the level many think they are capable of playing, the Steelheads could become even more of a force than they have been early this season.
The Steelheads might have the best tandem in the league
At just 17 years old and in his second season, Ryerson Leenders might be one of the best goaltenders in the OHL. He played both Saturday and Sunday for the Steelheads, a remarkable 41-save performance against a very strong Spirit team followed by a 37-save win behind a team playing their third game in as many nights.
Leenders is not the only goaltender in town, though, as Jack Ivankovic’s performance on Friday was the perfect example of why he was picked with the seventh overall pick in the 2023 OHL Draft. The 16-year-old made 35 saves en route to his first OHL victory, keeping the Steelheads in a close game against the Storm right to a victory.
Though the team has lots of dynamic scorers, Richmond says having two strong goaltenders is an important part of the team’s aspirations. Against teams like the Spirit, who Richmond called “a Memorial Cup team”, the young tandem will play an important role.
““We got two really, really high-end goalies. So in some games against guys that are older than us… our goalies are going to steal some games. Yesterday, our goalie stole us the game. Today, [Leenders] stole us this game,” he said on Saturday.
Still, Richmond did not discount the effort of his team to support the performance from their goalie.
“We showed a lot of heart, staying in it and coming back and winning,” Richmond said of Saturday’s win.
The Spirit took over early in the second period in that game, taking a 12-0 lead in shots into the first TV timeout and putting up 23 shots over 20 minutes. Leenders was there for every save he needed to make, stopping pucks in his chest and diving to take seemingly everything off the goal line.
The Steelheads took advantage of the skillful performance by their goaltender, scoring when the can’t-miss opportunities came their way. The game finished 4-3 thanks to Zander Veccia’s late-game heroics, but a 44-21 shot advantage for Saginaw showed how integral Leenders was to the victory.
“We're not going in to get outshot. [That's] not our team. But those are two older teams. Two teams that are near the top of the standings probably at the end of the year,” Richmond said on Saturday, adding his team did their best. “Our goalies are a big part of our team and showed up today and yesterday.”
Leenders did have one error on Sunday, taking a penalty by knocking over Sam Alfano late in the second period, but otherwise his calm, collected nature and confidence were evident. He throws in some chirps, but his play has done the most important talking.
Misa-Karmiris-Zebeski trio stands out for Steelheads
The Steelheads changed up their lines ahead of the weekend, moving Misa off of a line with MacDonell and Martone to put him with Karmiris and Zebeski.
The line, which appeared in preseason games, was the Steelheads’ best line all weekend long, contributing not only on the scoresheet but in all situations. Karmiris and Zebeski have established themselves as go-to guys in all situations, really making a mark with their relentless playing styles on the penalty kill. Misa, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a natural choice in any situation.
On Saturday, Richmond said he “loved” the way the line was playing.
“[Zebeski] is playing his best hockey as a Steelhead right now. He's a powerful forward and can push the puck on the walls. And [Misa and Karmiris] are pretty dynamic with the puck,” he said.
While Misa said the line has really connected and plays well with speed, Richmond had even more to add on Karmiris, who he said he had a meeting with earlier in the week.
“He had his best game of the season yesterday, and today, it was more of the same,” the Steelheads coach said on Saturday. “He's a strong kid. He's got to play on his toes and be a powerful kid and that's what he did yesterday and today, so good on him.”
Zebeski’s two-goal effort on Sunday might have come in a high-scoring affair, but his effort to get to the net with a nose for the puck is noticeable and working this year.
Misa, who has played with Zebeski for more than half of their lives thanks to being teammates on the Oakville Rangers.
“It’s awesome to see him [be] successful as well,” Misa said of Zebeski. “We’re looking forward [to] playing together and looking to keep that [success] going.”
Misa’s game this season is at a level not entirely unexpected, but striking to some. After 43 points in 64 games last season, he has entered his NHL draft year looking like a point-per-game player and potential top-three round pick.
The biggest difference has been that Misa is already at nearly half the amount of goals he scored all season in 2022-23. Misa says the thing he worked on most over the summer was building strength, but his shot was helped by that for sure.
Richmond referred to former Steelheads scoring machine James Hardie when referring to Misa’s new look.
“The more you shoot, the more you score,” he said.
Another parallel to Hardie came when Misa scored with a curl and release shot on Sunday. He admitted the goal was probably a bit like many of Hardie’s goals.
Richmond said the team had been working in morning skates on not just beating goalies with a quick release, but adding some movement and deception.
“Sometimes we work on things that work,” Richmond said, laughing.
Young Steelheads squad still showed its youth
Richmond was very happy to come away with six points and said his team played a great game on Sunday, but he said his team also has work to do.
Mostly, he pointed out the two goals Erie scored in the final seven minutes of the third period, each with the Steelheads leading by six goals.
“You can’t stop playing and just let them walk in and score two late goals. Can’t let that happen,” Richmond said after Sunday’s game. “We’ve got things to work on, no question about it.”
One of the big issues for the Steelheads throughout the weekend was turning the puck over.
Whether it was throwing a misplaced pass across the ice on the rush or not looking long enough before a weak defensive zone pass, the Steelheads found themselves having to be bailed out by their goaltender more than they’d like.
Richmond said the team was talking about keeping it simple rather than forcing too many fancy plays.
“That's what happens when you get young skilled guys trying to make nice plays. It gets turned over and comes and gets us,” JR told the media on Saturday. “I just talked about throwing pucks at the net, throw pucks at the net something will happen. So that's what happened.”
The same issue was seen on Sunday, though the Otters proved to be less of a threat to turn those mistakes into high-grade chances the other way.
The Steelheads are looking real hot heading into the fourth week of the season, but they are not infallible. Last year, the team was highly successful to start the season but plummeted in November. To avoid that this year, Richmond will likely focus on building maturity and composure, things the OHL is made for building.
Penalties a problem for Mississauga, but the penalty kill looks stellar
The Steelheads took 24 penalties over the three game weekend, putting themselves on the penalty kill 19 times, though some were cut off by penalties the other way. On Saturday in particular, the Spirit’s skill and speed led to drawing a lot of penalties, but the Steelheads took undisciplined penalties in all three games.
“We can't be taking those penalties,” Richmond said on Saturday. “We’ve got to be more disciplined.”
Though Guelph scored once and Saginaw twice on the powerplay, the Steelheads finished with a number of successful kills.
Richmond attributed pre-scouting and knowing what opponents would likely try to do to the success, especially against the Spirit’s heavy-loaded powerplay with Parekh as the quarterback. The Spirit did score on a five-on-three powerplay, so Richmond was not too concerned.
“Five-on-three is five-on-three,” he said. “I thought our guys did a great job on [the penalty kill].”
One noticeable aspect of the Steelheads’ penalty kill is that nearly everyone plays on it. Richmond likes to use all of his forwards on it, which proved necessary with so many penalties over the weekend.
The biggest moment for the penalty kill came against a five-on-three to start the third period on Sunday, where the Steelheads not only killed it off but got a goal from Misa a minute after it finished. MacDonell played much of that kill and was impressive alongside Sharpe and Parker von Richter, though the real star was Leenders, who made a number of stellar saves.
If the Steelheads continue to kill penalties the way they have, they may be able to afford taking some. But if they take as many as they have, they are going to start to pay the price. Richmond will likely make that a big talking point ahead of a very tough road trip to face the Sudbury Wolves and North Bay Battalion this upcoming week.