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Butler lauds Eastern depth

NORTH BAY, Ont. — With three weekends left in the Ontario Hockey League’s regular season, plenty of games can be considered critical to the tightly fought battle for Eastern Conference playoff positions. Such is the case as the North Bay Battalion hosts the Ottawa 67’s at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“We’ve got to find a way to win games right now,” coach Stan Butler said Wednesday after the Battalion lost both parts of a two-game road trip last weekend, 4-2 Saturday night to the Niagara IceDogs and 4-1 Sunday to the conference-leading Hamilton Bulldogs.

“We’ve got eight games to go, and we’ve got to generate points and try to finish as high as we can in the standings. The first thing we’ve got to do is solidify a playoff spot and then, after that, get the best seeding we can possible.

“It’s important for us to finish strong at the end of the season. We want to go into the playoffs with good momentum.”

North Bay has a won-lost-extended record of 27-24-9 for 63 points, third in the Central Division and sixth in the conference. The Battalion visits the Mississauga Steelheads on Friday night before playing host to the Kingston Frontenacs on Sunday.

The Battalion has three home games left, including a date next Thursday night with the Sudbury Wolves, as well as visits to Mississauga, Sudbury, the Peterborough Petes, Kingston and Ottawa. The Troops are 18-7-6 at Memorial Gardens and 9-17-3 on the road.

Kingston is third in the conference with 73 points, while Niagara and the Oshawa Generals, who defeated the visiting Steelheads 5-4 Wednesday night, are tied for fourth with 65. North Bay follows, with Ottawa a point behind in seventh place at 62 points from a record of 27-24-8. Mississauga holds the eighth and last conference playoff berth with 59 points.

“Right now three and eight is pretty close,” said Butler. “You look at eight, and it’s Mississauga, and some people had them picked for first. They’re a funny team. They just went on a four- or five-game winning streak, so they seem to go in spurts. Ottawa’s been playing really, really well since Christmastime, and Niagara’s had a bit of a losing streak, but they’re a good, talented team, so there’s lots of good teams in that group.”

Butler, who acknowledged that the Troops have improved since the first week of January, suggested other teams have done the same and cited Ottawa victories over the Western Conference’s Kitchener Rangers and London Knights.

“We’ve made good progress, but so have a lot of other teams on our side. We’ve got a lot of really good teams on our side. I think the (conference) is stronger this year depth-wise than it’s been in a long time. You look at Ottawa. They go into Kitchener the other night and they beat Kitchener 5-2, and then Kitchener beat Sarnia (Sting) last night. They go into London and win, so it just shows that teams on our side are having decent records against the other conference.”

Butler said the Battalion will be without left wingers Daniel Walker, who underwent surgery at Sudbury, and Adam McMaster, who left the game at Niagara and was scratched at Hamilton, for the foreseeable future.

“Walker’s out. He hurt his hand in a fight in Hamilton and he was operated on Monday, so he’ll be out six to eight weeks, and McMaster’s out right now with an upper-body injury.”

The 67’s will be without centre Shaw Boomhower and defenceman Kevin Bahl, both of whom are serving suspensions after receiving match penalties for head checks.

Centre Sasha Chmelevski paces Ottawa’s offence with a team-leading 31 goals and 30 assists for 61 points in 59 games, while left winger Tye Felhaber has 27 goals and 28 assists for 55 points in 59 games. Centre Austen Keating has scored 22 goals and earned 25 assists for 47 points in 57 games, and left winger Travis Barron has 14 goals and a team-high 31 assists for 45 points in 58 games.

Right winger Justin Brazeau tops the Troops in scoring with a team-leading 36 goals and 34 assists for 70 points, and left winger Luke Burghardt has 26 goals and a team-high 38 assists for 64 points. Defenceman Adam Thilander, who scored at both Niagara and Hamilton, has eight goals and 28 assists for 36 points. All have played 60 games.

The Ottawa game is to be played on OHL Onside Night, supporting a joint program of the OHL and the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres that seeks to promote respect for women through actions and words.

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