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 seventh-ranked 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 regular-season games and leads the OHL playoffs with 14 goals in 15 games.
"Everyone was kind of waiting around seeing when he was going to come back," said McLeod. "It was in the middle of our losing streak, he finally came back and we started winning. He's put up 300 points in this league, he knows how to score."
Mississauga (34-21-13) finished 22 points behind Erie (50-15-3) in the standings. The Otters also had the regular-season's top two scorers in forwards Alex DeBrincat and Taylor Raddysh — both 2016 NHL draft picks — as well as Arizona Coyotes 2015 first-round pick Dylan Strome, Tampa Bay prospect Anthony Cirelli and OHL defenceman of the year Darren Raddysh.
Along with McLeod and Watson, Mississauga's arsenal includes centre Nathan Bastian, another 2016 New Jersey pick, draft-eligible forward Owen Tippett and Finnish defenceman Vili Saarijarvi, who was taken by the Detroit Red Wings 73rd overall in 2015.
While it would be easy to take on the title of underdog, Richmond has confidence in his club at this point in the season.
"They have some high-end guys but on the flip side we have high-end guys too, so I don't think the matchup is off as much as a lot of people think," said Richmond.
"Erie's definitely been the best team through the regular season but I think we've been pretty darn good in the playoffs."
Mississauga is participating in its first league final since the franchise rebranded as the Steelheads in 2012. Erie won the OHL title in 2002 and reached the final in 2014-15 before falling to the Oshawa Generals.
The winner will move on to the Memorial Cup, which is being hosted by the Windsor Spitfires beginning May 19.
Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press