Big weekend for Battalion

NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion faces two key games in the Ontario Hockey League battle for Central Division positioning to open a three-game weekend capped by a home date with the league-leading Ottawa 67’s.

Add in an appearance by Chris Neil, the former North Bay Centennials stalwart, and it makes for a compelling early-season schedule.

The Battalion visits the Barrie Colts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday before playing host to the Sudbury Wolves at 7 p.m. Friday on Chris Neil Night, sponsored by the National Hockey League’s Ottawa Senators. The 67’s invade Memorial Gardens on Sunday.

“It’s a big weekend for us,” Battalion assistant coach Adam Dennis allowed Wednesday.

“It’s that time of year where you’re jockeying for position. You’re trying to get a sense of where your team is at heading into the break, to see where we’re going to go with this, so definitely a big test for us coming off a big week last weekend. We want to keep pushing forward.”

The Battalion, which has won six of its last eight games, has a won-lost-extended record of 10-8-1 for 21 points, tied with Barrie for fourth place in the division and holding a game in hand on the Colts, 10-9-1 after a 6-3 victory over the host Hamilton Bulldogs in a school day game Wednesday. In their only previous meeting, on Oct. 25, the Troops posted a 4-1 home-ice win over Barrie.

“They’re an interesting team to manage their matchups,” said Dennis. “At home, you can manage it a little bit more. They’ve got a lot of firepower so, when they want to, they can move down to two or three lines and it becomes tough to get the matchups that you want, so really we need our full team ready to play.”

Barrie will be without overage left winger Ben Hawerchuk, who’s serving a five-game suspension after instigating a fight in the last five minutes of a 4-0 road loss Nov. 4 to the Oshawa Generals.

Sudbury, which entertains Ottawa on Thursday night, is 11-6-2 for 24 points, second in the tight division, two points behind the Mississauga Steelheads and one ahead of the Niagara IceDogs, whom the Battalion defeated in its last two games, 4-3 in overtime Friday night at St. Catharines and 4-3 at home Saturday night. The Wolves are the only team to deny the Troops at least a point in their last eight games, having won 4-3 on Nov. 4 at Sudbury.

“With a guy like Chris Neil coming into our rink, I think it’s great not only for the fans but for our team as well,” Dennis said of the teams’ second of eight meetings.

“He’s going to pop his head in and talk to the players too, so to get that kind of a feedback in our dressing room from an NHL veteran that’s played over a thousand games — and he started in North Bay — it’s really good for our guys to draw from his experience and to realize that you can get there from North Bay.”

Right winger Neil played 190 games over three seasons with the Centennials culminating in 1998-99, scoring 65 goals and adding 91 assists for 156 points while amassing 596 penalty minutes. In 1,026 games in 15 seasons with the Senators, ending in 2016-17, he had 112 goals and 138 assists for 250 points with 2,522 penalty minutes. He ranks 20th in career PiM, with Tiger Williams holding the NHL record at 3,971.

Senators mascot Spartacat is to accompany Neil, and the NHL club has provided an autographed Neil sweater for a raffle as well as six game tickets, to be presented to Battalion season ticket holders. Neil is to sign autographs and pose for photographs with fans in the main concourse starting at 5:30 p.m.

The game against the East Division’s 67’s is scheduled for 3 p.m., as the Santa Claus parade assembles at Chippewa Secondary School at noon Sunday and passes on Chippewa Street.

Meanwhile, it was announced this week that Battalion centre Matthew Struthers and defenceman David Maier have been named to the ‘Players to Watch’ list issued by the NHL’s central scouting department in anticipation of the NHL Draft scheduled June 21-22 at Vancouver. The OHL segment of the list includes 42 skaters and three goaltenders.

Right winger Justin Brazeau of the Battalion, the league-leading scorer with 19 goals and 20 assists for 39 points in 19 games, is an overager. North American 20-year-olds aren’t eligible for selection.

Dennis said that Maier is to try out for Austria’s national junior team, which will participate in Division 1A, or the second tier, of the world championships.

“He’s been invited to the Austrian national team camp, and we expect him to make it, so that’s going to open a spot on the back end for our players in the month of December.”

The game at Barrie can be seen live in North Bay on YourTV Channels 12 and 700 and heard on Country 600 CKAT.

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