Hamilton Bulldogs sweep Mississauga Steelheads in OHL playoffs


Published May 13, 2022 at 10:05 pm

The Hamilton Bulldogs got their first exposure to playoff overtime, which might come in handy when they pick up their pursuit of the Ontario Hockey League title next week.

Hometown defenceman Arber Xhekaj scored 1:49 into sudden-victory session on Friday, giving Hamilton the 3-2 win against the determined Mississauga Steelheads and a 4-0 sweep in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final. The Hamilton-born, Hamilton-raised defenceman, whom the Bulldogs acquired at the OHL trade deadline in January, carried in from the blueline and snapped a shot by Steelheads goalie Joe Ranger at the the Paramount Fine Foods Centre.

Another Hamilton native, goalie Marco Costantini, saved 26-of-28 shots to extend the contest into overtime in a tautly played contest. The Bulldogs were down a goal twice, and nothing was settled after Mason McTavish broke free for a game-tying short-handed goal early in the second period. That tally was the ninth in eight playoff games for McTavish, who is a first-round choice of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.

Hamilton, which is 8-0 in the playoffs, will begin the Eastern Conference final on May 20 against the winner of the Kingston Frontenacs-North Bay Battalion series. North Bay is up 3-1 in that matchup.

The Bulldogs last made the Eastern final in 2018. That spring, they went on to give the city its first J. Ross Robertson Cup championship team in 1976.

These Bulldogs finished the series with three front-end contributors out of the lineup with injuries. Centre Jan Mysak, wing Mark Duarte and offensive defenceman Nathan Staios were all nicked-up during the series. Wing Avery Hayes rejoined the lineup on Friday after serving a three-game suspension, and drew an assist on Hamilton’s first goal, which came through Ryan Humphrey.

The Trout were stout

Zander Veccia, with his his first OHL playoff goal, and Aiden Preuter scored for the Steelheads. Zakary Lavoie, the impressive rookie from Orléans, Ont., had two assists. Ranger saved 27-of-30 shots.

The loss lowered the curtain on the season for the Steelheads, who were hailed for punching above their weight as OHL competition resumed after being shut down since March 20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An 82-point regular-season and a second-round trip was Mississauga’s best result since 2017. Bench boss James Richmond was recently honoured as OHL coach of the year, and a roster led by Freelton native and Chicago NHL draft pick Ethan Del Mastro was one of the most defensively sound and disciplined sides in the 20-team league.

The stout Steelheads played to their strengths with their collective back to the wall in front of a crowd of 2,906 on Friday. Hamilton had only one power play, which came after an automatic delay-of-game penalty to Steelheads defenceman Ole Bjorgvik-Holm for flipping the puck over the protective glass and into the stands.

Friday’s matchup was the teams’ 12th of the season. Hamilton went 10-1-1, with an aggregate 33-17 scoreline. That average of 2.75 goals was more than a goal and a half below Hamilton’s 4.39 average against all opponents.

On Saturday, three other OHL heavyweights have their first opportunity to wrap their series. All three matchups have a 3-1 scoreline, with the leading team hosting a Game 5.

North Bay can bounce Kingston. North Bay’s run has been spurred by Ajax native Brandon Coe, a San Jose Sharks draft choice who is third in playoff scoring. A Kingston defeat would also likely be top NHL draft prospect Shane Wright’s last game in the OHL.

In the Western Conference, the Windsor Spitfires will try to eliminate the Kitchener Rangers. Windsor’s lineup includes Dundas native Jacob Maillet, a centre who has three points through 10 playoff games.

Windsor last reached the conference final in 2011. That team was captained by Freelton native and Philadephia Flyers defenceman Ryan Ellis, who was also the Red Tilson Trophy winner that season as the OHL’s outstanding player.

The Flint Firebirds can put away the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Pickering native Brennan Othmann, a New York Rangers first-round choice, has paced the Firebirds offensively with 14 points in 11 playoff games. Flint is also bolstered by a trio of Mississauga natives: defenceman James Petrovski and forwards Sahil Panwar and Riley Piercey.

Flint, prior to this spring, had not won a playoff series since relocating from Plymouth, Mich., in 2015.

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