NORTH BAY, Ont. — Coach Stan Butler hasn’t had worries in recent seasons about making the Ontario Hockey League playoffs but, with the North Bay Battalion facing a rash of injuries, that’s not the case this year.
“It’s not a position I’ve been in in a long, long time,” Butler said Wednesday. “It is a concern, and our players have to play with a sense of urgency because, when the difference in making the playoffs could come down to one or two points, you don’t want to leave points on the table that you could have got.”
The Battalion has a won-lost-extended record of 18-24-3 for 39 points, tied with the Niagara IceDogs for third place in the Central Division and holding the eighth and last playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. The Troops, in their fourth season in North Bay after 15 in Brampton, have missed the playoffs only twice, in their 1998-99 expansion campaign and in 2001-02, when 11 players were sidelined or playing hurt at the end of the schedule.
North Bay is without defencemen Cam Dineen, who underwent knee surgery in December, Brady Lyle, who has a lacerated upper right leg, Riley Bruce, suffering from a shoulder ailment, and Eric Allair, dealing with a back injury.
“He’s probably a couple of weeks away,” Butler noted of Lyle. “He’s the first one of the group that will come back, there’s no doubt about that. After that, it’s a long time. Allair is making no progress at all, and obviously Riley’s probably the first of March, and Dineen would be probably first round of playoffs.”
Butler may take some consolation from the schedule, which has the Battalion playing just two games this week for the first time since before the Christmas break. North Bay visits the Kitchener Rangers at 7:30 p.m. Friday and plays host to the Peterborough Petes at 4 p.m. Sunday.
The Battalion blew a 3-0 third-period lead at Peterborough last Saturday night on the way to a 5-3 loss. On Sunday, the Troops took a 3-2 lead out of the first period against the visiting Saginaw Spirit before losing 6-3.
“I think it’s totally mental — I think that’s where we’re at,” Butler noted of the funk that’s seen the Battalion go 3-12-1 since a 6-0 home-ice victory Dec. 8 over the Flint Firebirds.
“If you look at our game with Peterborough, the first two periods we played very, very well, and it was the same players that were on for the third period, and once they scored that first goal our guys seemed to unravel, and they can’t allow that to happen. Once that goal goes in, they’ve got to bounce back and push in the other direction.”
In three springs in the Gateway of the North, the Battalion has won six playoff series, having advanced to the OHL Championship Series in 2014 against the Guelph Storm.
“A lot of it is that you’ve got to learn how to win,” said Butler. “We have enough guys in that room that know how to win, and they’ve got to remember how to win and teach the other guys how to win, and that’s my concern right now, that we’re finding ways to lose a game.”
Butler, noting that injuries cut into the forward ranks early in the season and then waylaid goaltenders Brent Moran and Mat Woroniuk before descending on the defencemen, allowed that the troubles have been present for some time.
“We’ve got to play a full 60 minutes. It’s something that we’ve struggled with all year. Even early on when we were winning games, a lot of those games, we won them in the third period. Now we seem to get off to better starts and play the first two periods well, but we’ve got to find ways to finish that off, and that’s something we’re looking at as a coaching staff.
“Adam (Dennis) and John (Dean) are looking at a lot of video, and we’re having some discussions with our captains and things like that on preparation and things that we need to do better to be successful.”
Kitchener, which won 6-3 at North Bay on Sept. 30 in the teams’ only other meeting, is 26-16-4 for 56 points, fourth in the Midwest Division.
Left winger Adam Mascherin leads the offence with 28 goals and a league-high 46 assists for 74 points in 43 games, while right winger Joseph Garreffa has 15 goals and 25 assists for 40 points in 46 games. Centre Connor Bunnaman has scored 23 goals and added 11 assists for 34 points in 42 games, while rookie right winger Greg Meireles has 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points in 44 games.
Centre Brett McKenzie leads the Battalion with 21 goals and 26 assists for 47 points in 44 games, while right winger Steve Harland has 20 goals and 25 assists for 45 points in as many games.
The game at Kitchener can be seen live on CogecoTV Channel 12 and heard on Country 600 CKAT.
The Peterborough visit to Memorial Gardens features a later start time to accommodate CogecoTV Hockey Day in the OHL, which opens with Saginaw visiting the Sarnia Sting at 1 p.m. and has the Hamilton Bulldogs at the Windsor Spitfires at 7 p.m.