The Mississauga Steelheads enter Wednesday’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final up 3-0 in their series with the Peterborough Petes, just one win away from the Rogers OHL Championship Series.
Winners of seven straight contests, James Richmond’s Steelheads are playing their best hockey, a brand that makes an OHL-worst 6-14-3-3 record on December 4th seem like something out of a bad dream.
That’s the truth though, a testament to a season salvaged by perseverance and determination on the part of a Steelheads club that never quit.
“We’ve gone through it all this year,” said Richmond in reflection. “We lost nine in a row at one point. We were the last place team in the entire league. It would have been easy for us to shut it down right then, but these guys have never given up and everyone has bought in to what we’re doing.”
Trade acquisitions Spencer Watson and Vili Saarijarvi were coming off significant injuries, the Steelheads battled inconsistency in the crease and offensive centrepiece Michael McLeod scored just five goals over his first 23 games.
“It was hard to stomach for sure,” said sixth-year general manager James Boyd. “The losses were mounting but we tried our best to keep things in perspective. Despite our record we weren’t out of the race in our division. We really just had to re-focus and we established a goal of aiming to be playing our best hockey come playoff time.”
That’s what has gradually unfolded in Mississauga as things began to turn around in the month of December with the additions of Saarijarvi and Watson to the lineup.
McLeod’s production also accelerated upon his return from duty with Canada’s National Junior Team. He finished the season with 27 goals, 46 assists and 73 points over 57 contests.
Strong goaltending also followed as overager Matt Mancina returned to full health following an early-season injury while rookie sensation Jacob Ingham returned from a standout performance at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge full of confidence.
The Central Division Champion Steelheads joined the Midwest Division-leading Owen Sound Attack as two of the OHL’s best clubs in the second half as the Fish played to a 28-7-3-4 record from December 4th on.
“Sure, we would liked to have seen this hockey all year long, but to his credit J.R. (James Richmond) has done a great job keeping a long-term perspective,” Boyd noted. “The foundation of his program is really skills-based. Every day the guys are doing skills and working toward the long term so it’s nice to see the guys reaping the benefits here in the playoffs.
The bar had been set high for the Steelheads from the outset this season as evidenced by their seventh place label in the CHL’s Pre-Season Top-10 Rankings released prior to the start of the season in late September.
“It’s a credit to our coaching staff because it’s not an easy situation when everyone is picking you to be the best team in the conference and then you stumble out of the gate,” said Boyd.
“They’ve done a tremendous job of staying the course.”
Highly regarded NHL prospects in McLeod (New Jersey), Bastian (New Jersey), Saarijarvi (Detroit), Watson (Los Angeles) and defenceman Jacob Moverare (Los Angeles) have all been go-to options for Richmond this season, joining elite 2017 NHL Draft prospects in Owen Tippett and Nicolas Hague at the top of the Trout depth chart.
Through the ups and downs, the first-year OHL head coach has had a season to remember.
“It’s been an honour to coach these guys this year,” said Richmond of the experience. “I think it took awhile for our guys to understand the way that we wanted to play and when they finally came together and started to see success they really gelled as a group.
“It’s been wonderful to watch these guys grow as players and young men this season. We’ve all had fun with it.”
A win over Peterborough at home on Wednesday would send Mississauga to its first appearance in the Rogers OHL Championship Series since 2011.