‘Big games’ order of the day

NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion is back home for two of three games this week, but that doesn’t mean the pressure is off the Ontario Hockey League team.

“They’re all big games now,” Stan Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach, said Wednesday. “We’re at a stage of the year where we’ve dug ourselves into a bit of a hole, and because of that we don’t have a lot of room for error.”

The Battalion has a won-lost-extended record of 9-15-4 for 22 points, tied with the Sudbury Wolves for fourth place in the Central Division, one point behind the Mississauga Steelheads, 11-16-1 after losing their last six games and the visitors to Memorial Gardens at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Butler pointed to the return of right winger Owen Tippett and centre Michael McLeod from the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils respectively as promising a reversal in fortunes for Mississauga. Tippett has five goals and eight assists for 13 points in 11 OHL games, while McLeod has five goals and three assists for eight points in as many games.

The Battalion completed a road trip of three games in as many nights with a 3-2 overtime loss last Saturday to the London Knights, after defeating the Sarnia Sting 3-2 Friday and losing 5-2 Thursday to the Windsor Spitfires.

“I would have liked to get four points out of six, but we were pretty happy with three and, like I said to someone the other day, (the) Oshawa (Generals were) basically on the same road trip and they got two points,” noted Butler, who suggested that “second effort” was a key to North Bay’s relative success.

“There’s a lot of times on 50-50 plays or situations where we might have lost them in other games, (but) guys were finding ways to win those battles and battle harder in tougher situations.”

Goaltender Christian Propp saw his second action with the Troops at London, contributing 27 saves in a strong performance. Acquired Oct. 22 from the Owen Sound Attack after having been dealt to that club by the Barrie Colts, he left his Battalion debut Oct. 26 with a lower-body injury 5:31 into a 4-0 home-ice decision over Windsor, getting the win and a shared shutout with Julian Sime.

“It’s good for Julian that Propper’s back too, because now he’s got to be forced to compete,” said Butler. “We went a couple of weeks there where Propper was on the bench, but we really didn’t want to put him in the net, and Julian knew that. Now Julian’s in a situation that, when he does get a start, they’d better be good starts because, if they’re not, then if the other guy’s playing well, it’s going to lessen his playing time.”

The Battalion visits the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds at 7:07 p.m. Friday before playing host to Barrie at 2 p.m. Sunday.

North Bay has 40 games left on the schedule, including 21 at home. The Troops just finished a stretch of 16 games in which they faced Western Conference opposition 12 times. They went 5-9-2 overall, 4-6-2 against the opposite conference, 3-7-1 on the road and 2-2-1 at home.

“I want to see progress,” Butler noted of the six games left before the Christmas break.

“I want to see them show me that, with a little bit here and there, we can be a competitive group in the Eastern Conference. That’s something I’ve talked to our leadership group about. I’ve told them, not as the coach of the team but as the general manager, that’s what I need to see in order to make the decisions I’m going to have to make here in the next month.”

Right winger Justin Brazeau leads Battalion scorers with 18 goals and 10 assists for 28 points. Left winger Luke Burghardt has scored 11 goals and earned 15 assists for 26 points, while defenceman Cam Dineen has seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points. All have played 28 games.

The first 1,000 fans to arrive for the Mississauga game on The Home Depot Night will receive cowbells, courtesy of the game sponsor. In a “mystery puck” fundraiser for the North Bay Crisis Centre, fans can purchase an autographed, wrapped Battalion puck in the north concourse for $5. The fan who receives the Dineen puck signed with a gold marker will win a $100 Home Depot gift card.

Fans also can test their drill skills in the main concourse. Those with the two fastest times will be invited to participate in a leaf-blower puck race in the second intermission, with the winner receiving a Ryobi two-pack drill and driver kit from The Home Depot.

On Saturday, the Battalion will hold a used equipment sale outside the dressing room near Gate 4 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Gloves, helmets, pants and other items will be available in limited quantities. Terms are cash only.

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