By: Mitchell Fox
The Mississauga Steelheads found themselves on the losing side of a playoff scramble on Tuesday night, falling 5-2 to the North Bay Battalion in game three of their first-round Ontario Hockey League (OHL) playoff series.
The result means the Battalion have taken a 2-1 lead in the series.
The Steelheads followed a comeback victory on the road in game two with another strong performance, but it was not enough to overcome the team that finished second in the OHL in the regular season.
Here are some takeaways from a fiery playoff clash at Paramount Fine Foods Centre on Tuesday.
The only real takeaway: a 2-1 series deficit
The 5-2 loss means the Steelheads are now behind 2-1 in the series.
A victory on Wednesday would tie things up as the two teams head back to North Bay, while a loss would put the Steelheads against the ropes on the road.
There is one other note to make, however: Steelheads head coach James Richmond said Brice Cooke is expected to be out for three-to-four weeks with an injury he suffered during the game, a key loss to the Steelheads' depth.
Steelheads play well, but Battalion take advantage of opportunities
The key to game three proved to be the difference in taking and not taking advantage of opportunities. The Steelheads might have played some of the best hockey that they have all season, showing prowess on the puck, responsibility in their own zone and an ability to create chances as they always do, but it was not enough.
The stat sheet reflected a commonality for the Steelheads, as despite a 35-26 advantage in shots, they ended up losing the game by three goals. A big part of this is that the opportunities they gave the Battalion were too good. One of the league’s best teams made little mistake converting on the few chances they did get in high-danger areas of the ice.
The Steelheads cannot quite say the same. Their play at five-on-five was strong, but the Battalion did not leave a lot of room in the slot or give up many odd-man rushes, and when they did, the Steelheads did not take full advantage.
Steelheads head coach James Richmond said his team has been playing well in the series, as a 2-1 series would indicate, but they need to find their scoring touch around the net, especially against North Bay.
“We weren't as sharp as we were in game two, but I thought we played pretty well,” he said. “That’s the second-best team in the league. So, we're there, it's just gotta be sharper.”
Playoff hockey means little room on the ice
A trend in game three was both squads' commitment to using tight checking and active sticks to leave no room for their opponent to score. Playoff hockey truly took hold as the teams battled hard in the corners, threw hits left and right and kept high-danger chances to a minimum by loading up the slot with defenders and blocking shots. There were also two fights in the game, including a fiery bout featuring Porter Martone and Josh Bloom late in the game.
In a lot of ways, this favoured the Steelheads as the lower seed and team with less firepower, but the Battalion did not seem too bothered.
The Steelheads were able to impose the game that they wanted to play on the Battalion in the first period, restricting their room to make plays with speed and making them play tough. An 11-8 shot count in favour of the Steelheads reflected a good 20 minutes.
However, Mississauga lost track of that game a bit in the second period. Struggles in transition and a lack of puck possession meant the Battalion were able to keep the Steelheads on their toes, taking advantage of any time they fell a step behind to get pucks to danger areas and towards Leenders.
Though they answered quickly after the Battalion’s third goal, the two-goal deficit gained in the second period proved too much for the Steelheads to overcome. Their best efforts in the third period, including a 13-5 shot advantage, still came with the end result of a 5-2 loss.
Leenders and DiVincentiis continue to do their job
Ryerson Leenders and Dom DiVincentiis have each started all three of the game series so far, with DiVincentiis especially making his mark in games one and two.
Both goaltenders have generally been strong throughout the series, with a four-goal period for the Battalion in game one serving as an outlier for Leenders. Four goals on 25 shots may not look the prettiest on paper, but Leenders made a number of big saves for Steelheads, shutting down a few breakaways and kicking out some dangerous shots from the slot to bail out his teammates’ mistakes.
“I thought he was pretty good tonight,” Richmond said of his goaltender.
The goaltender at the other end of the ice was even more undeniably good. DiVincentiis earned the second star of the game for his 33-save performance, which included stops on breakaways, powerplay one-timers and high-danger shots from the slot.
Richmond hoped for his team to be sharper at putting pucks into the net, but he could not go without mentioning the opposing goaltender as well, bringing up that DiVincentiis could win awards for his performance this season.
The Battalion goaltender finished the regular season with a 36-9-2 record and a .919 save percentage, second among OHL goaltenders with at least 30 games played. Against the Steelheads specifically, DiVincentiis had a 0.934 sv% in four games during the regular season (he had a 46-save shutout in the last game he played against Mississauga on March 3), which he has only improved upon with 0.940 sv% through the first three games of this series.
Steelheads special teams stay strong
On Tuesday, with McDonald’s goal as a misstep, the Steelheads continued with their strong play on the penalty kill. Efficient stickwork and focused positioning helped to keep the Battalion to the outside of the zone for most of the eight minutes they spent down a man, while Leenders made the stops he needed to on the occasions North Bay did line up a quality shot.
Their penalty kill is now 12/13 for the series, a significant improvement from their 73.2% penalty kill during the regular season. Though a small sample size is noteworthy, that is what the playoffs are all about: coming up strong when it matters in only a few games.
The Steelheads’ powerplay was also fairly good on Tuesday. Though they only got credit for one powerplay goal, Richmond said the coaches consider it two, as Zander Veccia’s goal came only seconds after a Battalion player had gotten out of the box.
Still, the official 1/6 record on the powerplay in the game is underwhelming. Richmond was fairly happy with his powerplay, but still spoke similarly about it to the rest of the game: the finishing touch just was not there.
“We generated a lot of chances, but we weren't as sharp around the net. We weren't as desperate around the net,” Richmond said.
The big concern Tuesday would be that the Steelheads were unable to make the best out of a powerplay when it mattered most when Justin Ertel took a four-minute high-sticking penalty in a 3-2 game in the third period. Missing important opportunities and missing others by taking penalties of their own would prove to be an issue, as Richmond said on multiple occasions that his team “needs to be more disciplined.”
The Steelheads are now 4/17 on the powerplay in the series. For a powerplay that struggled towards the end of the regular season, it was crucial to get going early in the series and in each game, and they have done that.
The main force on the Steelheads’ powerplay is James Hardie, who now has four powerplay points in the series, including two goals to bring his franchise-leading total to five (he set the record in game two).
Beyond Hardie, a big factor on the powerplay has been the play of the guys at the blue line. Defencemen now have six powerplay points in the series (and eight of 20 total points), including a goal each for Kasper Larsen and Charlie Callaghan. It was Larsen’s shot from the point that tied the game in the first period, while Chas Sharpe drove the Steelheads’ powerplay leading up to Veccia’s goal and got the primary assist.
If the penalty kill continues to do its job well and the powerplay manages to take advantage of the chances it has been getting, the Steelheads’ special teams could make a distinct mark on the outcome of this series.
Game four takes place Wednesday
With game four set for only 21 hours after the end of Tuesday’s game, the Steelheads will need to pick themselves up and come back with the same sort of effort they have shown throughout the series. However, they will need to get back to their sharper play from game two, when a 3-2 lead for the Battalion after two periods proved to be insignificant.
Bouncing back has been and will need to continue to be a trend in the series for the Steelheads. This was seen in game three, as when they were down 1-0, they tied the game in under four minutes and when they were down 3-1, they answered in a little over two minutes.
Richmond said his team has responded well throughout the series, as they did in game three.
“We gave them three goals in game one [on] soft plays and mistakes. But we were still pushing, pushing, pushing,” Richmond said. “We had a chance to get back in that one. So [Wednesday night], we're not gonna stop. We're gonna keep going.”
Richmond said his team just needs to keep doing what they’ve been doing, other than being sharper near the net.
“We’re not out of it,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep going, keep doing, keep pushing and hopefully we get the next one.”
The other key for Richmond’s team will be to come out of the gates firing, perhaps drawing on the energy of a hometown crowd hoping to see the series come back to Mississauga for game six. Richmond was happy with the way his team played for the most part on Tuesday, but this was one area he would like to improve.
“If there is something I didn't like, I didn't like our start,” Richmond said. “So let's have a better start.”
The Steelheads will hope to start strong and end even stronger on Wednesday as they seek to even up the series and prevent themselves from ending up on the ropes.
The Intermission Sports will have you covered for game four and everything else Steelheads, so stay tuned!