By: Mitchell Fox
The league’s best proved to be enough of a challenge for the Mississauga Steelheads on Sunday afternoon, as they fell 4-2 to the Ottawa 67’s.
The 67’s came in on a surprising four-game losing streak, but showed their strength early and often against a Mississauga team that could not find consistent offensive opportunities for much of the game.
Here are some takeaways from a low-event but high-energy game at Paramount Fine Foods Centre on a cold, snowy afternoon in Mississauga.
Steelheads see four-game winning streak snapped
The Steelheads came into Sunday’s game riding a four-game winning streak, their first since October, when they managed a five-game winning streak. The team looks very different than it did then, but has been able to find a similar rhythm in January. On Sunday, however, they were unable to bring that level of play against a strong opponent.
Steelheads head coach James Richmond said the first period was “soft” and “lazy,” but the team gradually got better through the second period and especially the third period. Still, he said it comes down to effort.
“You can't play one-third or half the game, especially playing the first place team,” Richmond said.
Richmond said his team needed to come out with a better effort to start the game.
“It's one thing to respect your opponent, it's another thing to stand back and watch them,” Richmond said.
“I think a couple of our defenseman were a little bit shy when it came to winning puck battles today. And that really hurt us.”
Richmond said his team found the chances that they needed in the third period, even getting to the parts of the ice they have talked about over the last couple of weeks. However, even with a close call for James Hardie just before the 67’s scored their empty-net goal, it was not enough to overcome the deficit they gave up.
“For whatever reason, it took to the third period for the guys to really see it,” he said.
67s shut down the game with low-event style and physical play
The Steelheads came out of the gates hoping to take down a powerhouse, but it proved a difficult challenge. Mississauga found some energy and ferocity in the first couple of minutes of the game, but this quickly disappeared as they struggled against the 67’s shut-down style.
The physical play became a key to the game, with both teams finishing their checks in all three zones, including some loud crashes against the boards. Richmond said it is now the point in every OHL season where players are settled in, but intensity hits a new level.
“You'll see a faster game and more physical game,” he said. “That's what you're seeing.”
Richmond said the 67’s are “obviously” well-coached with former NHL coach Dave Cameron behind the bench and that they managed to turn the game into a low-event one, leading the Steelheads to fall into a trap.
“It's kind of like a pro game or a playoff game where you've got to really win certain areas in the ice. The two blue lines, you have to win them,” Richmond said.
“You can't go East-West through the neutral zone,” he continued. “We did that a little bit too much.”
Richmond said his team made the adjustments they needed as the game went on, as they managed a number of chances in the third period. It was the only period in which the Steelheads outshot the 67’s – managing 13 shots on goal – but it was too little, too late.
Stevie Leskovar scores first OHL goal
The Steelheads saw their first bright spot of the game late in the second period when defenceman Stevie Leskovar found the back of the net with a shot from the slot.
The goal, which Richmond called “great,” was the first of Leskovar’s OHL career, coming in his 46th game and eighth with the Steelheads. The 6’4” defenceman is not necessarily known for his offensive prowess, having missed the stat sheet in 38 games with the Peterborough Petes before being traded to Mississauga, but he is starting to find it now.
The goal got quite the reaction from the crowd at Parmaount Fine Foods Centre, matched by Justin DeZoete’s jumping bear hug for Leskovar immediately following the goal.
“He's fit in great in the room,” Richmond said of Leskovar. “[You] saw the reaction on the bench from his teammates.”
The Cambridge, Ont., native was brought in by the Steelheads on Jan. 10 as defensive depth to make up for the departure of Ethan Del Mastro. While the offence was changed dramatically with the team’s five trades, the defence remained largely the same, save for, as Richmond called it, the “big hole” where the former captain was.
Richmond said though no one can replace Del Mastro, Leskovar does bring some attributes of his defensive game.
“Stevie brings that physicality part,” he said. “He's hard to play against in our zone.”
This was also evident on Sunday, as Leskovar – who was awarded the second star of the game – showed his defensive ability and awareness with a few heavy hits on the boards and strong plays with his long reach.
Richmond said he thinks the 18-year-old Leskovar has been “terrific” and will continue to make his mark.
“As he goes along here, he'll start to learn more and get better.”
James Hardie breaks another franchise record
James Hardie has been all over the scoreboard and all over the record books in recent weeks. With his Steelheads franchise records in goals and points increasing with seemingly every game, the co-captain has surely made his mark in January.
On Sunday, after finding a loose puck on the 6-on-3 powerplay late in the game, he broke another franchise record: his 29th career powerplay goal.
The previous record was held by Owen Tippett, whose goals record Hardie broke a couple of weeks ago. There are two players, Jordan Mayer (35) and Casey Cizikas (33), with more goals while playing for other iterations of Mississauga teams. Hardie could catch or break those thresholds too, but he would have to increase his powerplay goal pace a fair bit in the last 23 games of the season.
Hardie now has 29 goals (five on the powerplay) and 61 points in 43 games this season. He is currently on a 12-game point streak.
The Steelheads will have a day off on Monday and practice on Tuesday before setting off on a four-game road trip. They will hope to have Parker von Richter – who Richmond said is day-to-day with an injury – and Adam Zidlicky – who suffered a concussion but is recovering and working out – available to them on the weekend, which starts with a matchup with the North Bay Battalion on Thursday.
The next Steelheads home game will be Feb. 10 against the Owen Sound Attack.