The Steelheads were eliminated from the OHL Playoffs on Easter Sunday. Mitchell Fox provides some takeaways from the game and six-game series with North Bay.
By: Mitchell Fox
The Mississauga Steelheads’ season ended in heartbreaking fashion on Easter Sunday, falling 5-4 to the North Bay Battalion in game six of their first-round Ontario Hockey League playoff series.
The loss means the Steelheads have been eliminated from the playoffs and are done for the 2022-23 OHL season, while the Battalion move on to the second round. They could play the Peterborough Petes or the Barrie Colts, depending on whether the latter defeats the Hamilton Bulldogs.
The Steelheads saluted their fans for one last time this season, but they did so in extraordinary fashion — fighting to the bitter end against a tough opponent.
Here are some takeaways from an exhilarating and emotional afternoon at Paramount Fine Foods Centre on Sunday.
The result: Steelheads push tough opponent, but it’s not enough
Once again, the only real takeaway for most fans, players, coaches and those looking on from the outside is the result of the game and series. The 5-4 loss means the Steelheads fall 4-2 in the series, ending a season that saw a lot of ups and downs, some breakout performances and a ton of great hockey.
Due in part to a troublesome stretch to end the regular season, the Steelheads entered the playoffs as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, earning them a battle with North Bay, who had won their last 11 games. When game one got away from the trout in the second period, it looked like a dangerous sign of what was to come in the series. But a win in game two, a strong performance in a loss in game three and an impressive victory in game four showed they could give the Battalion a run for their money.
The results from there would be disappointing, but there were positive moments in each game and across the series for the Steelheads. Head coach James RIchmond said he is not worried about where anyone is seeded when it comes to the playoffs.
“Once you get in the playoffs, it's about preparing your team and and trying to win that series — trying to win four games before the other team does,” he said.
A tough opponent nevertheless gave the Steelheads more than they could ask for on occasions in the series, and the result was a loss. Still, Richmond’s team definitely played like they wanted to prove they could beat anyone.
“I'm really proud of all of our guys,” Richmond said. “I'm proud of the three overagers but I'm really excited about our young group.”
Underwhelming first period puts Steelheads too far behind
The game can be summed up pretty simply: the Steelheads did not start strong enough, and the Battalion certainly did.
With the Battalion finding their skill, strength and style of play from the drop of the puck, the Steelheads went down early, and found themselves on the wrong side of what looked like a blowout. It was 3-0 less than 14 minutes into the game, and 4-1 after the first period. When Kyle Jackson completed his hat trick and put the Battalion ahead 5-1, it looked like the game was all but over.
But the Steelheads fought back. A couple of goals late in the second period and a third period in which they threw all they had at the Battalion brought the score to 5-4 with a couple of minutes to go.
When Paul Christopoulos put the puck over the glass and sent the Steelheads to the powerplay with a little over two minutes to go, there was a real sense they could tie up the game. But it was not to be, as the Battalion held off a surging and hungry Steelheads offence and Dom DiVincentiis stopped everything he faced.
Steelheads head coach James Richmond said his team’s inexperience and maybe nerves showed in the beginning of the game, but he was happy with the way they battled to the end.
“We had a poor start to the game, the first 12 minutes. We gave them too much,” said Richmond. “But I'm pretty proud of the way we fought back.”
Another high-scoring game gets the better of the Steelheads
A young Steelheads squad and a high-powered opponent resulted in lot of offence throughout the series, and game six was no exception. The Battalion scored five goals for the fourth time in the series, all four of their victories. A total score of 25-15 in the series was largely due to a 5-1 finish in game one and a dominant 6-0 Battalion shutout in game five.
The high-scoring nature of the series was not so much about the performance of Ryerson Leenders in goal or even the Steelheads defence, but of the strength of the Battalion’s offence. They had six players who averaged a point per game in the series, including Matvei Petrov who led the way with 10 assists, Kyle McDonald who scored seven goals (his hat trick goal on Sunday was the game winner) and Ty Nelson, one of the top-scoring defencemen in the playoffs so far and a plyer whose speed and skill were evident all series.
A big part of the Steelheads’ inability to match the Battalion’s offence was of course goaltender Dom DiVincentiis. The Battalion goaltender made 36 saves and was the second star of the game on Sunday, just a sample of his series. The Winnipeg Jets’ seventh-round pick from 2022 posted a 0.938 save percentage in the series and made enough unbelievable saves to stump Richmond not once, but twice.
“He made some saves there tonight in the second period that I couldn't believe they didn't go in. And when I looked at them on the iPad, I still couldn't believe they didn't go in,” Richmond said of DiVincentiis.
He used that as just an example of the role the North Bay netminder played in the series.
“I think at the end of the day, you look at, their goalie... was the top player in the series on both teams,” Richmond said. “When we get into playoffs, it's usually the best goalie's team that wins. At any level – at the pro level and this level.”
Full disclosure, I was going to add a takeaway about the Steelheads’ powerplay not doing enough in a crucial game, but you’ve all heard enough about special teams this season. So here’s some broader (and long! My apologies!) takeaways.
Martone, young players, provide reason for optimism
One takeaway that might mean the most for the Steelheads after Sunday is that their young players showed up in full force in the playoffs.
Richmond said the Battalion coaches and the referees both mentioned to him that “this team's gonna be back for a few more years” after the game.
“I think we saw as a little bit of a coming out party for a lot of our younger guys,” Richmond said. “They're ‘06’s and ‘05’s and it's kind of crazy.”
Leading the way was Porter Martone. The former fifth-overall OHL Draft pick had a strong rookie season, but an even better playoffs, finishing with six points in six games. He had two goals on Sunday, one to kick off the Steelheads’ near comeback late in the second period, and one to bring the score to within a goal late. When Richmond mentioned Martone briefly to media after the game, he laughed, clearly impressed by the youngster’s play in the postseason.
17-year-old NHL Draft eligible center Angus MacDonell also played a key role for the Steelheads in the series, finishing with five points in six games and leading a line with Martone and Adam Zidlicky that became Richmond’s go-to unit at times in the series.
Zidlicky, Luke Misa, Mason Zebseki and Finn Harding were also born in 2005 and played important parts for the Steelheads throughout both the regular season and playoffs, while Lucas Karmiris, Jack Van Volsen and Parker von Richter join Martone as 2006-born players who impressed in big ways. Karmiris’ growth throughout the season resulted in him serving as the Steelheads’ starting center on Sunday, Van Volsen proved to be a meaningful player to get in return for Owen Beck and played a lot of minutes as Richmond shortened his bench in the third period and von Richter played the important two-way role on the blue line he had all season.
The most impressive showing might have come from Ryerson Leenders. The 16-year-old took the crease in all six games in the series and finished with 136 saves. His .861 save percentage does little justice to the way he played, as he had to make a number of big saves to bail out his team in every game, and showed immense poise for a goaltender of his age.
Though the play of his young players, and his team overall, provide Richmond and the team with positives to think about heading into the offseason, he said the loss hurts for now.
“Optimism will set in in a couple of days. Not right now. But yeah, for sure,” said Richmond.
The Inevitable Goodbyes
The end of the Steelheads’ playoff run means the end of the season, which means there are players to send off into their futures.
For the Steelheads, this means saying goodbye to James Hardie, Charlie Callaghan and Kasper Larsen. The three overage players were important players for Mississauga, as Hardie and Callaghan played their entire five-year (four-season) OHL careers with the Steelheads and Kasper Larsen played an important part for two seasons with the team.
Richmond said he was proud of his three overage players, who he has complimented in post-game interviews all season.
“I mean, they're lifers, right? Steelhead lifers,” he said. “They gave us everything.”
Hardie played 255 regular season games as a Steelhead and set records with 128 career goals and 244 career points. He also played 20 playoff games, in which he had 17 points. In the series with North Bay, he had eight points in six games and set the franchise record for playoff powerplay goals in game two.
Callaghan may not have been a premium scorer, but he was a force for the Steelheads across 208 regular season games and 20 playoff games. His presence on the back-end was evident thanks to heavy body checks, a knack for finding the puck and his ability to move the puck up the ice efficiently. He had one assist in the game Sunday.
Richmond had plenty to say about Callaghan, who served as a co-captain with Hardie since January.
“What can we say about Chucky, right? He is all heart,” Richmond said. “To make the team after being an eighth-round pick in his first year, making the team at his size. Everybody said he couldn't play. He did more than just play. He's a leader. He's a captain.”
Larsen, meanwhile, came to the Steelheads ahead of the 2021-22 season after his move overseas from Denmark was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Larsen, who earned the nickname the “Great Dane,” posted 78 points across his 111 regular season games with the Steelheads, and nine in 16 playoff games. He was fifth in points (first among defenceman) for the Steelheads in the series with North Bay.
Richmond said Larsen was committed from the start and had a good run in Mississauga.
“He was all on right away,” Richmond said of Larsen. “He was a great Steelhead, so hopefully he can move on now to one of the pro teams.”
The three overagers will now move on to the next stage in their career, while the team’s focus will turn to the draft on April 21-22 and the offseason to follow.