Mississauga Steelheads move on in OHL playoffs — to meet Hamilton Bulldogs

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Published May 2, 2022 at 11:26 pm

Captain Ethan Del Mastro and the Mississauga Steelheads get to see if they can play giant-killer in hockey’s Battle of Highway 403.

The Steelheads beat the Barrie Colts 6-4 on Monday night, sealing a six-game series win to advance in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs for the first time since 2017. Their reward? An Eastern Conference semifinal against the Hamilton Bulldogs, who are 40-2-1 so far in this calendar year, including five consecutive regular-season wins against the Steelheads.

The best-of-seven series will start later this week, with Hammilton having home ice at FirstOntario Centre for the first two contests. Hamilton went 6-1-1 in the season series. Mississauga’s wins against the Bulldogs were well before the January trade deadline — a 3-0 home win on Nov. 5, and a 3-2 shootout victory in Hamilton six days earlier on Oct. 30.

Hamilton has become a juggernaut since January. Bulldogs general manager Steve Staios loaded up by adding Anaheim Ducks first-round choice Mason McTavish up front, while adding overage defenceman Arber Xhekaj to fortify Hamilton’s back end.

Monday, the Steelheads held on for dear life to close out Barrie at the first opportunity after twice having four-goal leads at Sadlon Arena. The Colts, with their season on the line, got within a goal with 2:44 to play.

James Hardie, though, iced the series with an empty-net goal with 1:50 left. It was Hardie’s team-leading sixth goal and eighth point of the playoffs.

Del Mastro, a Chicago NHL draft choice who hails from the Hamilton community of Freelton, had three assists from his defence spot on Monday. Rookie forward Zakary Lavoie scored two goals and Jake Uberti chipped in a one-goal, two-assist night to help the Steelheads build a 5-1 lead before the end of the second period.

With the familiarity from the first five games of the series heightening the animosity between the division rivals, Mississauga kept its cool, to the count of receiving five more power plays than Barrie. The Steelheads capitalized by going 4-for-7 with the player advantage while Barrie was 1-for-2.

Steelheads goalie Roman Basran saved 33-of-37 shots. He made 19 of his saves during the third period, and finished the round with a 1.87 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.

San Jose Sharks draftee Ethan Cardwell led Barrie in scoring with six points (four goals, two assists).

The Steelheads will be in the second round for just the second time since Elliott Kerr’s management group rebranded the franchise in 2012-13. They won the Eastern Conference title in 2017, but lost against the Erie Otters in a five-game OHL finals.

The Bulldogs own an OHL championship from 2018, but due in part to COVID-19 cancelling the OHL playoffs twice, are also in the second round for just the second time in their current iteration. The franchise came to the city in 2015 after chairman Michael Andlauer purchased and relocated the Belleville Bulls.

The Steelheads and Bulls last met in a first-round series in 2013. The Bulls, backed by current Buffalo Sabres goalie Malcolm Subban, won that series 4-2.

The North Bay Battalion have home-ice advantage against the Kingston Frontenacs in the other Eastern semifinal.

Two Western Conference series are undecided. The No. 1-seeded Windsor Spitfires and No. 4-seeded Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who could end up facing one another, have already advanced.

There are two closeout Game 6 contests on Tuesday. The London Knights visit the Kitchener Rangers, and the Flint Firebirds visit the Owen Sound Attack. Both London and Flint would host a Game 7, if necessary.

Unlike the NHL, which uses a hard bracket playoff format, the OHL reseeds after the first round when there is an upset by a lower-seeded team.

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