Friday night’s matchup between the Mississauga Steelheads and North Bay Battalion was set to be a big matchup for both teams. The Steelheads would clinch a postseason berth following a win at home while North Bay is fighting desperately to keep their playoff hopes alive. North Bay a came to Mississauga sitting 10th place in the Eastern Conference, but have been red hot as of late with a 6-2-2-0 record in their last ten games. Both teams came into the game with a winning mentality which is exactly what was to be expected.
The Steelheads gave goaltender Joe Ranger the chance to backstop his team to a win to bring the team back into the playoffs. Ranger has suited up in just ten games this season before Friday night’s matchup. The Battalion decided to ride the hot hand by starting rookie goaltender Joe Vrbetic who is coming off a 25-save shutout against Shane Wright and the Kingston Frontenacs the night before.
The first four minutes of the first period was pretty back-and-forth for both teams with a lot of missed passes and sloppy play. That all changed very quickly. Cole Schwindt kicked off an exciting first period with a great stretch pass to James Hardie to put him on a breakaway.
Hardie beat Joe Vrbetic, but could not beat the post as his shot failed to find the back of the net. Had he found twine, Hardie would have had his team-leading 34th goal early in the game. Just about a minute after Hardie’s breakaway, the Steelheads defence gave up the puck in a bad area that gifted a Battalion scoring opportunity.
Luke Moncada got the puck on a feed from Shane Bulitka and deked out a Steelheads defender to put himself one-on-one with goaltender Joe Ranger. Moncada faked to one side before going for the one-handed tuck to burry the puck past Ranger. There was nothing Joe Ranger could do to stop Moncada’s phenomenal goal.
The Battalion’s game-opening goal did not get the Steelheads down. They followed up dominating play by getting shots on net. The Steelheads almost tied the game up just minutes after Moncada’s goal when Ethan Del Mastro found an open net off of the rebound, however, his shot was blocked at the last second by Battalion players sticks.
It would have been Del Mastro’s first career OHL goal. The Battalion were finally able to get a quality scoring opportunity after some solid chances for the Steelheads when North Bay had a partial breakaway. Forward-turned defensemen Nicolas Canade came to the rescue, using the body to defend against the North Bay forward, limiting his shooting lane and his control of the puck. Ranger was faced with a shot as a result of the play, but due to Canade’s defending, it was easily saved by Ranger.
Throughout the first period, the Steelheads made it their focus to get pucks on net. They didn’t always try and make their way closer to the net before shooting. The strategy was clearly to get pucks on net, tire the young Battalion goaltender out and convert on rebounds.
Vrbetic did a good job limiting the Steelheads chances making a couple of big saves, including a great quick toe save on Isaacson. After multiple solid saves, the Steelheads got their chance to beat Vrbetic once again, however, Isaacson’s shot hit the post. In the final two minutes of play, Nicholas Canade rifled one top shelf past Vrbetic who had no chance of stopping the blazing fast shot. In the last 10 seconds of the game, the Steelheads got another great scoring chance with a two-on-one, however, Vrbetic made the save with his blocker.
The second period was crazy from start to finish. Hardie kicked things off with another breakaway opportunity after coming away with the puck in the Battalion’s zone with the puck on his stick. Vrbetic made the save on Hardie and made a couple of other nice ones after that, but that was pretty much the extent of his luck in the second period. The first goal of the period was the first of two that the rookie goaltender would love to take back. Ty Collins, shooting the puck at a crazy sharp angle on the goal line, somehow squeezed its way through Vrbetic’s pads to put the Steelheads up by one halfway through.
Mississauga’s second line featuring Cole Schwindt, James Hardie and Calvin Martin followed up on their lead by beating the Battalion with shots and chances. After failing to convert on what felt like a power play, North Bay star player Brandon Coe got the puck in the neutral zone and worked his way to Joe Ranger and blasted the puck past the Steelheads goaltender to put his team back to within one.
Almost a minute after Brandon Coe got the Battalion back on the board, the Steelheads scored one of the craziest and rarest goals you will ever see. Ty Collins dumped the puck in from deep within the Steelheads zone and after likely deflecting off someone’s stick, the puck bounced right past Vrebetic. Bouncing pucks are always tough to stop and this was surely one that the North Bay goaltender would love to had back.
The Steelheads increased their lead once again, converting on a rare three-on-one. James Hardie got the puck along the boards in his team’s own zone and had the no-look backhand pass to Calvin Martin who brought the puck into the Battalion’s zone and passed the puck to Duncan Penman who one-timed the puck bar-down past Joe Vrbetic. Just minutes after, North Bay’s 16-year-old forward Liam Armsby made a nice pass in front of the net which resulted in Alex Christopoulos getting North Bay back on the board.
As Armsby celebrated the goal, he got into a scuffle with Richard Whittaker which quickly escalated into a team-wide battle. Both Armsby and Whittaker were given penalties, making it the first time all game anyone was sent to the box. The first power play was awarded to the Mississauga Steelheads after a great play by Washkurak who drew the penalty as Paul Christopoulos held him to try and get the puck.
The first power play of the game saw the Steelheads once again get on the board. This time, however, James Hardie finally managed to convert a chance after Cole Schwindt perfectly threads the needle across the crease to the tape of Hardie’s stick. The 2020 Draft eligible forward made no mistake, patiently waiting out Vrbetic and roofing the puck on a perfectly placed sharp-angled shot. The Steelheads would end the period up by two on north Bay, 5-3.
Both teams knew that the third period was going to be tough. The Battalion started the period off strong, knowing that every point matters with the season winding down and the Battalion’s playoff hopes to have in the balance. Kyle Jackson got the crowd on their feet early on by completely decking out Joe Ranger, leaving him out of play and the net wide open for what looked like a sure goal.
But before Jackson could bury the puck, he was met with a swarm of Steelheads players who were able to stop the Battalion from getting back on the board. Right after the Battalion almost got the game back to within one, the Steelheads were once again rushing to the Battalions zone for a two-on-one. James Hardie had a great chance to convert one again, but this time, Joe Vrbetic made another solid save to keep his team back in the game.
With just under ten minutes left to go in the game’s third period, Mississauga got a penalty, getting the call at a very bad time. North Bay needed to get another goal if they wanted a chance to win the game. During the Steelheads penalty, a goal was scored, however, it wasn’t scored by the team on the man advantage.
Shorthanded, Keean Washkurak went end-to-end and beat Vrbetic with a great backhand move to increase the Steelheads lead. Shortly after, the Steelheads converted yet again to increase their lead to 8-4 after a failed attempt by North Bay to clear the puck. The Battalion finally got back on the score sheet in the final two minutes of play, however, it was too late to change their luck. Josh Currie fired the puck off of the crossbar and Christian Stevens made no mistake, burying the rebound for his first career OHL goal.
The final score of the game would be 8-5 in favour of the Steelheads. As such, it clinched them a playoff birth for a second consecutive season. Thomas Harley also had a big night, recording his 100th OHL assist after recording two helpers in the Steelheads win.