By: Mitchell Fox
The Mississauga Steelheads won their third straight game Friday night, defeating the Niagara IceDogs 4-3 in overtime.
Zander Veccia’s goal in the extra frame brought a conclusion to a tight-knit game, which featured back-and-forth action and plenty of tenacity.
The Steelheads sit fourth in the Eastern Conference thanks to the victory, while the IceDogs’ loss comes as another installment in a tough stretch (they are 1-8-1-0 in their last 10 games) that has seemingly sealed their fate at the bottom of the Ontario Hockey League.
Here are some takeaways from an electric evening affair at Paramount Fine Foods Centre.
Zander Veccia ends the game in style, keeping first line hot
After an energetic end to regulation brought the Steelheads into overtime with the hunger to win, Zander Veccia would be the one to take advantage, sealing the deal with a burst of speed to the net and a backhand past IceDogs’ goaltender Josh Rosenzweig.
The goal was part of a three-point effort for Veccia on Friday, bringing him to eight points in his last five games.
The first line of Veccia, James Hardie and Luke Misa has been a key part of the Steelheads’ success in recent weeks, combining for 24 points in the last seven games and 67 points in 15 games since the OHL’s trade deadline.
Veccia said the three have been “clicking” since then.
“We have a couple of laughs,” he said. “The chemistry is there. It's a lot of fun to play with them.”
With an assist in the game, Hardie extended his points streak to four games (in which he has eight points). Misa, who scored an important breakaway goal with three seconds left in the first period, has points in five straight games.
Steelheads head coach James Richmond had plenty of praise for his top line, crediting Hardie for adding the ability to drive a line since the trade deadline. He added that Misa is “absolutely flying” and Veccia’s speed and strength make him hard to stop when he drives the net like he did in overtime.
“He's a big, strong power forward that has some skill, but he's got to play fast and hard,” Richmond said about Veccia. “That's what he did tonight.”
Central Division rivals butt heads once again
Though both teams feature very different lineups from when they met on the opening night of the season in October, it was evident Friday night that six matchups against any team can foster some contempt. The capstone for the season series saw both teams bring their tenacity all over the ice, and a 48-23 shot count in favour of the Steelheads would tell a different story than the scoreboard.
The Steelheads’ victory gives them a 5-1 victory in the season series, a result that reflects the contrast between the Steelheads’ contention for a playoff spot and the IceDogs' struggles at the bottom of the league.
Richmond said he thought his team might have taken it easy on a team they know is struggling, something that happens in all sports.
“You look past that team to another team,” Richmond said. “You can't. Not in this league.”
Richmond was referring to the Steelheads’ next game, a matchup with Shane Wright and the Windsor Spitfires on Saturday.
“I think maybe guys were thinking about that game, instead of this game,” he added. “We'll talk about it before we get on the bus.”
Steelheads take their time in first period, struggle later
A high shot count would not be enough to make the game easy for the Steelheads, as 48 shots would still bring a close 4-3 overtime victory.
This came mostly from a strong first period, where the Steelheads took a 18-4 advantage in shots. IceDogs goaltender Josh Rosenzweig did an impressive job of limiting the Steelheads to just chances and few results, though the Steelheads struck late in the first period. Angus MacDonell’s powerplay tally (giving him a goal in five straight games) and Misa’s breakaway showcase with three seconds left in the opening period would give the Steelheads the lead the shot clock suggested they deserved.
Still, the Steelheads couldn’t keep the momentum from Misa’s goal, resulting in a second and third period Richmond wanted more out of. The Steelheads coach said the team was “really in control” in the first period, but their lack of experience showed partway through the second.
“The second period, selfish stuff crept in,” Richmond said. “And the third period wasn't much better than the second, to be honest.”
Still, the team did find its way back late in the third period, which Veccia credited to Brice Cooke, who followed a game-tying goal up with a fight in the same shift. The spirited bout helped amplify the Steelheads’ even further.
“I think that changed the game for us,” Veccia said of Cooke’s play on that shift.
From there, the Steelheads would carry momentum into overtime, taking control in the extra frame in a way it felt like more of a question of when they would score than if.
Nonetheless, Richmond said his team has “got to be better” to win games in the OHL.
“I think we deserved to win, but we can't make it that difficult on ourselves,” he added.
Ryerson Leenders does his job with Alessio Beglieri out
One of the key stories for the Steelheads throughout the season has been the play and progression of Ryerson Leenders. The 16-year-old goaltender took the net for the 27th time for the season on Friday, holding down the fort while Alessio Beglieri works his way back from a concussion.
With 20 saves, including some dangerous chances in the second and third period, Leenders continued to do what he has done for the Steelheads this season.
Richmond said the young goaltender has done “pretty well” this season, and was “pretty good” on Friday.
“I mean, no other 16 year old is doing what he's doing in net in this league, so we'll take it,” Richmond said.
“Every game he plays is an experience,” he added.
Richmond said the team will not have Beglieri or defenceman Chas Sharpe back on Saturday, but hope to have them back for Monday if they clear injury protocols.
Special teams prove… not all that vital?
One concern for the Steelheads coming out of Friday night might be penalties. Eight penalties in the game resulted in five powerplays for the IceDogs, who scored twice with the man advantage, including to bring the score to 3-2 halfway through the third period.
The penalty kill did more of their job than not (3/5), but the squad will want to have better special teams performances as they final portion of the season gets underway.
This includes the powerplay as well, as the trout would have like more than one goal out of six powerplay opportunities against a struggling team.
Discipline and special teams play could prove to be important for the rest of the long weekend. The Steelheads will want to avoid penalties against the Windsor Spitfires and Saginaw Spirit, two teams with the superstar talent to take advantage.
The Steelheads hit the ice in Windsor on Saturday to take on Wright and the soaring Spitfires (the only team in the OHL to officially clinch a playoff spot so far), then return to Mississauga on Monday to welcome Michael Misa, brother to the Steelheads’ Luke, on Family Day.
Veccia said the team takes “every team the same” and will do the same against Windsor.
“They're a high caliber team, but I think we can pull it off and do some magic.” he said.