By: Mitchell Fox
The Mississauga Steelheads came out on top in an electrifying game against the Barrie Colts on Wednesday night, defeating them 6-5 in a shootout.
The win came as the Steelheads hosted Indigenous Celebration Night for the rare Wednesday night game, donning jerseys designed by local Indigenous artist Kory Parkin for the game. The jerseys are now up for auction, with proceeds going to 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations.
The jerseys were just one in a game full of highlights, with a high-scoring affair bringing the Steelheads an important win against a divisional opponent late in the season.
Steelheads clinch the playoffs
With the Oshawa General’s 8-3 loss to the Ottawa 67’s earlier in the day, the Steelheads secured a spot in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Playoffs. They currently sit sixth in the Eastern Conference with 66 points and five games remaining in the regular season.
Mississauga helped their case with a win on Wednesday, earning two points to keep them two points ahead of the Sudbury Wolves for sixth place and within reach for fourth or fifth place (though it would be challenging).
Steelheads head coach James Richmond said he did not tell his players about the Generals’ result and its meaning during the game. He says the team can now build off a strong game and needs to keep the engine going as the season winds down if they want to do something like the Los Angeles Kings did in 2012, going from the eighth seed in the NHL’s Western Conference to the Stanley Cup.
“We have to play like we're in the playoffs now,” he said. “We've been trying to do it the last four weeks. We have some good habits, but then we have a break-in-the-game type of thing, probably because of inexperience. So we're just going to keep doing it.”
Steelheads defenceman Parker von Richter, who scored the last goal in the shootout and had two assists in the game, said the run toward the playoffs has shown him the team can surprise people.
“We have the right parts on our team that when we play great like we did out there today, I feel like any team we play, we have a chance to surprise them and win that series,” von Richter said.
Wednesday’s clinch marks the sixth season in a row the Steelheads have made the playoffs. Richmond said it feels good to keep the playoff streak going, which has been intact since he has been with the team.
Goal-fest could indicate great potential playoff matchup
The Steelheads and Colts are no strangers, having played each other five times this season prior to Wednesday night as Central Division rivals. If they knew anything about how to score on one another, it was clear on Wednesday, as the two teams offered tight-checking and constant back-and-forth action for 60 minutes and beyond.
The game's excitement is matched with future excitement, as the two teams could play each other in the playoffs. If the Steelheads stay in the sixth seed and the Colts in third, the two teams would play in a rematch of last year’s first round (a series the Steelheads won four games to two). Some large gaps in the standings make this seem possible too, raising the potential for more games like Wednesday’s. If that happens and the two teams do show up at a form like they did on Wednesday, Mississauga and Barrie fans could be in for a real treat.
Richmond said the Colts are a scary team.
“When they're big guys get out there it’s really tough. We didn't match up well against them,” he said. “We’ll have to do a lot of homework.”
A particular force for the Colts on Wednesday – and on many nights – was Brandt Clarke. The defenceman, who was one of Team Canada’s top blue-liners at the World Juniors this year and is a prospect of the Los Angeles Kings, had two goals and four points in the game, bringing his total to 52 points in 28 games this season (he has 12 points in four games against the Steelheads).
“Clarke takes over a game whenever he wants to,” Richmond said.
Von Richter, who was rewarded the third star of the game award, said it was nice to get to shoot in the shootout and score in an important game. Von Richter was also quick to bring up his confidence in his team.
“If we play them in playoffs, I feel like it's gonna be a great series because now we know that we can take them,” Von Richter said.
He said the team was feeling good after the game and that hopefully the boost to morale can get them back on track toward the results they had back in January.
Leenders continues holding his own in goal
Another key factor in the game for the Steelheads is Ryerson Leenders, who made 39 saves in the game. Richmond said though the team gave up five goals, he liked the way Leenders played, pointing out the overtime and shootout in particular.
But throughout the game, the Steelheads goaltender was phenomenal in the crease, stopping a number of high-danger chances, especially from the Colts’ big names such as Clarke, Evan Vierling and Ethan Cardwell. His stops on Cardwell and Clarke in the shootout would then secure the victory for the Steelheads.
Since being pulled early in Friday’s game against the Ottawa 67’s, Leenders has played three straight games and played well, culminating in two victories and a 42-save loss. Wednesday’s start meant Leenders played in both legs of a back-to-back. This may come as a surprise considering Alessio Beglieri’s play all season and the squad’s overall use of a 1A-1B tandem, though Leenders has played more and played well over the last stretch of games since Begleiri got injured.
Having Leenders comfortable and ready on the back of a hot stretch and Beglieri back to full health could give the Steelheads a massive boost in the playoffs.
Leenders now holds a 12-15-3-0 record in his first season as a Steelhead alongside a .879 save percentage. Not many 16-year-olds have played 35 games in a season this season, let alone historically, so Leenders’ ability to take on the role he has is significant.
Zander Veccia keeps shining
The first star of the game award on Wednesday night was awarded to Zander Veccia, who not only had a strong game but scored without a doubt the game’s prettiest goal. Veccia’s between-the-legs goal would play a significant part int he trajectory of the game, tying it up and creating momentum for the Steelheads to pick up and carry a lead into the third. They would not fall behind in the game from that point, either leading or tied.
The gritty power forward used his strength and speed all night, causing havoc on the forecheck and creating some offensive chances for himself and his teammates. He almost got a breakaway in overtime, but was just caught in time by Clarke.
Over the last two or three months, Veccia has played much of his time on the top forward line with Luke Misa and James Hardie. Though his scoring has slowed down a bit in February and March, the 18-year-old winger sits at 42 points in 63 games this season, a strong progression from 23 points last season.
James Hardie racks up another milestone, accolade
Steelheads captain James Hardie also had a strong game on Wednesday, though the story would go further for him. In addition to playing in his 250th career game as a Steelhead, Hardie broke the franchise record for points in a single season.
Hardie tied Nicolas Hague’s record of 78 points with a goal in the first period, then beat it with an assist on Angus MacDonell’s second-period goal. Hardie now has a number of records under his belt, including franchise all-time goals and points records and as of last week, the overall Mississauga points record (having beaten Riley Brace’s record of 234 points split between the Steelheads and Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors).
As the Steelheads head into the back half of a busy March Break (four games in a week) and the final stretch of the season, Hardie will hope to continue to cement his legacy by setting these records even higher, while his team seeks to carry forward the improved offensive depth they have shown over recent games.
The Steelheads next game comes Friday night at Paramount Fine Foods Centre against the Erie Otters.