By: Mitchell Fox
The Mississauga Steelheads came away from a hard-fought playoff clash with a crucial victory Wednesday night, defeating the North Bay Battalion 4-1.
On the second night of a back-to-back in the playoffs, the Steelheads showed little fatigue, taking control early and often.
The result means the Steelheads even the series at 2-2, with game five set in North Bay on Friday, and a guaranteed game six coming back to Mississauga on Sunday.
Here are some takeaways from a successful game four for the Steelheads at Paramount Fine Foods Centre on Wednesday.
A stronger start for the Steelheads
One of head coach James Richmond’s hopes for his teams after Tuesday’s loss in game three was for his team to start on a better note. On Wednesday, in short order, his team responded in turn.
The Steelheads were not able to gain a lead in the period, but they were able to dictate their game for much of 20 minutes. On Tuesday, this came in spurts, as the Battalion were still able to find ways to generate chances in the slot, but on Wednesday, the Steelheads limited their opponent to just four shots in the opening frame. They also created opportunities for themselves, as many of their eight shots came from the slot and required a strong save out of Dom DiVincentiis.
The Steelheads were able to impose and maintain control over the game, keeping it from getting too fiery or high-flying. Had coach James Richmond said low-event hockey was what they wanted, and they got it, so they want to keep that going.
“We were trying to do something. And it was working,” he said. “We had a couple of real good chances to score in the first we didn't score. So you’ve got to worry about us sinking down, but we didn't.”
The biggest moment came in the final five minutes of the first period, when the Steelheads killed a four-minute penalty in impressive fashion. Rather than keep the Battalion to the outside with the puck as they did on Tuesday, the trout did not even let North Bay get set up on the powerplay, clearing the puck continuously and not letting them take any shots against Ryerson Leenders. Richmond said the four-minute kill gave his team “a huge boost.”
“Our PK was was dynamite tonight,” Richmond said. “That kind of sucks the life out of them.”
After slightly amped up second, Steelheads control the third
The second period started off similarly to the first, except the Steelheads had even greater control of the play. They were able to impose their will on North Bay, controlling puck possession and getting a few strong chances close to DiVincentiis.
The game took a complete change of pace in the back half of the second period, as the Battalion started to turn things in their favour, turning it into a penalty against Kasper Larsen. However, the powerplay would start in even worse fashion than their first-period debacle, as Angus MacDonell tore off and scored a shorthanded breakaway goal only eight seconds into the penalty.
However, the Battalion managed to score only 73 seconds later and from there, a high-energy game took hold, as the two teams traded rushes, keeping both goaltenders on their toes. This would stop with the end of the middle period though, as the Steelheads managed to impose the game they wanted in the third before getting on the board and never looking back.
Richmond said he told his team between periods that they needed to play to win the game, and not be afraid to lose.
“1-1 at the end of two, it's in our building, we get last change. We were confident,” he said. “Don't change what we're doing because we're not giving up a lot.”
Angus MacDonell’s goal less than five minutes into the third period would end up as the game-winner, as the Steelheads shut down the Battalion similar to how they did in the first, while also creating even more offence against a North Bay team on their heels.
If they can play that style of game, with the effort and finishing ability too, for the rest of the series, an upset could very well be in the cards.
Extra defenceman, extra defence?
With Brice Cooke out of the lineup, the Steelheads opted to bring Dylan Gordon back in and go with seven defencemen and 11 forwards. If this game was any indication, that framework might stick, as the Steelheads’ defence was a force to be reckoned with on Wednesday. Gordon and Stevie Leskovar were not overly noticeable in the game, but that is a good thing for bottom-pairing defencemen as it means they were not making mistakes and were filling in as they needed to.
The trout were successful in shutting down a strong Battalion offence with positioning, stickwork and checking. Ryerson Leenders only faced 23 shots, and credited his team with not giving him too many tough chances to face.
“The team made it easy for me to play,” Leenders said. “There weren't really many high-quality scoring chances for them. Our PK was unreal. We shut them down.”
Richmond was especially happy with his team’s defensive play in the first and third periods, the former in which they only allowed four shots and the latter as they held onto a lead.
He said the team did a good job defensively, especially in the third period, as they did not allow the Battalion much space in the offensive zone and when they did, they managed to get the puck back and get it out of the zone efficiently.
“Our D were pretty solid. We didn't give up a lot,” Richmond said. “Third period, we really buckled down and we kept them to the outside.”
If the Steelheads stick to playing with seven defencemen for game five on Friday, they will hope for similar contributions from all seven guys, as well as the forwards, who contributed with effort on the backcheck, blocked shots and many interceptions in their own zone.
Leenders continues to shine in goal
Like any playoff series, goaltending has had a major part to play in this one. Dom DiVincentiis has been a difference-maker in the series for the Battalion (as seen in his .932 save percentage through four games) but Ryerson Leenders has been important for his team too. His .873 sv% is less impressive, but also less relevant, as the Steelheads tend to allow less shots, but a fair number of high-danger ones. Leenders’ strongest games have also been the Steelheads' strongest – his 22-save performance Wednesday earned him the second star of the game.
Richmond says the 16-year-old has “worked his butt off” in practice with goaltending coach Chris Beckford-Tseu and has been playing well in the series.
“He looks confident. He looks dialled in,” said Richmond.
Leenders said he was a bit nervous coming into his first playoffs, but he is settled down now.
“I felt great,” he added.
Despite a couple of dangerous chances for the Battalion in breakaways and odd-man rushes, Leenders looked solid as ever, rarely losing his positioning and making clean saves. He said he tries not to think too much about the scoring chances against him, as it comes down to keeping composed and focusing on the shot.
Leenders has played all four games in the series for the Steelheads. Four games in six nights is no easy feat, especially against a team like North Bay and when two of those games were difficult losses. He says it is all about focus.
“It's tough to like have lost and come back next day,” Leenders said. “Every shot, every goal, you gotta put it behind you and focus on today.”
If he continues to do that and make the big saves he has, it is hard to envision Leenders losing the crease as his team tries to keep pushing to win the series.
It is also worth mentioning the other end of the ice, where DiVincentiis has been a major factor. Despite continued strong play and multiple showstopping saves (marked by a stop on Luke Misa on the powerplay in the second period), the Steelheads managed to get pucks passed him at five-on-five on Wednesday.
With a shorthanded breakaway, a rebound off the rush and a shot from the high slot, they found multiple ways to beat the Battalion netminder. The ability to finish on chances was missed in game three, but Richmond reflected on a strong offensive output in game two as they will need in game five and beyond.
“That game we had four against him and we had him on his heels tonight again,” Richmond said of game two. “So we'll just keep trying to do what we're doing.”
Steelheads get all-around effort
Another big story for the Steelheads has to be that the whole team contributed on Wednesday, even if the usual suspects were the ones on the scoreboard.
Angus MacDonell, who has been strong since joining Mississauga, had two goals in the game and earned the first star of the game. He had been good through the first three games, but he was an absolute force in game four alongside Porter Martone and Adam Zidlicky, both of which Richmond also highlighted as having good games on Wednesday.
Another name Richmond mentioned was Parker von Richter, who looked a bit better than he did for some of Tuesday, when he seemed a bit jittery with the puck at times. On Wednesday, he played a lot of tough minutes and had to be a force in transition, which he did.
Martone and von Richter are both just 16 years old, as is Lucas Karmiris, while Jack Van Volsen and Mason Zebeski are 17. Richmond mentioned all of them by name after the game, highlighting Van Volsen’s work on faceoffs and with a really close chance late in the game.
“Man oh man some of the younger guys, they really stepped up today,” Richmond summarized.
From the 20-year-olds at the top of the lineup to the youngsters to the depth players, every Steelhead did their job in a strong effort on Wednesday.
“I loved the way our guys competed the whole game,” Richmond said.
He will surely be pushing his team to get him to say the same after game five on Friday.
The Intermission Sports will have you covered as the Steelheads continue their run in the OHL Playoffs.