It’s Ot­ters and Steel­heads for OHL crown

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - KYLE CICERELLA

TORONTO — The Mis­sis­sauga Steel­heads could have called it quits just two months into the On­tario Hockey League sea­son. Instead, their per­sis­tence has them play­ing for the league cham­pi­onship.

Mis­sis­sauga swept the Peter­bor­ough Petes to win the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal and will face the Erie Ot­ters for the J. Ross Robert­son Cup, with Game 1 set for Thurs­day in Penn­syl­va­nia.

The Steel­heads have made ma­jor strides from their early-sea­son strug­gles to earn a chance for the ti­tle, mak­ing up for a string of losses that had them sitting at the bot­tom of the stand­ings over a third of the way into the sched­ule.

“We could have eas­ily rolled over early in the sea­son on a (nine-game) los­ing streak in Novem­ber but we stuck with it and knew what our team could be,” said cap­tain Michael McLeod.

“We showed a lot of char­ac­ter and gelled from there, got a few key pieces back and we’ve been head­ing in the right di­rec­tion ever since.”

Mis­sis­sauga was the sev­en­thranked team in the coun­try in the pre-sea­son, but found it­self slid­ing out of the Cana­dian Hockey League’s Top 10 within in a month. By early De­cem­ber the club was in the league base­ment at 6-14-6 and some play­ers were ques­tion­ing if they had what it took to com­pete.

“You see what peo­ple pre­dict and a lot of peo­ple had us win­ning the East or com­ing close, then we get off to start like that and ev­ery­one starts doubt­ing them­selves, we could have gave up,” added McLeod. “I kind of had this ex­pec­ta­tion in my head go­ing into the year know­ing who we had, know­ing the East wasn’t as strong as pre­vi­ous years — I was all in this year.”

Steel­heads coach James Rich­mond, who is in his first sea­son be­hind the Mis­sis­sauga bench, took re­spon­si­bil­ity when things weren’t go­ing well, re­fus­ing to place the fault on his play­ers.

“It’s easy to put the blame on the kids, they’re teenagers, they’re go­ing to make mis­takes,” said Rich­mond. “I don’t think it was the play­ers. You have to ask what hap­pened and I had a meet­ing with our coaches and told them we had to be five to 10 per cent bet­ter.

“We slowed down the coach­ing, (the) teach­ing part of it. Ex­plained it (bet­ter) and they got it and started hav­ing suc­cess with it and it snow­balled after that.”

The team went 28-7-7 in the sec­ond half of the sea­son en route to win­ning the Cen­tral Di­vi­sion and even­tu­ally set­ting up a date with Erie, the Western Con­fer­ence cham­pi­ons and OHL’s top team in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Be­cause of NHL train­ing camps, the Steel­heads be­gan the year with nine rook­ies in the lineup while seven reg­u­lars were ab­sent. That included 19-year-old McLeod, who was se­lected by the New Jersey Devils 12th over­all in the 2016 NHL draft.

Spencer Wat­son also re­turned from off-sea­son surgery in De­cem­ber. The 21-year-old winger pro­duced 28 goals in just 41 reg­u­larsea­son games and leads the OHL play­offs with 14 goals in 15 games.

Mis­sis­sauga (34-21-13) fin­ished 22 points be­hind Erie (50-15-3) in the stand­ings.

BRYON JOHNSON, METROLAND

Nathan Bas­tian cel­e­brates with the Bobby Orr Tro­phy after the Mis­sis­sauga Steel­heads de­feated Peter­bor­ough 7-0 to ad­vance to the OHL fi­nal.

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