NORTH BAY, Ont. — With three weeks left in the Ontario Hockey League schedule, the North Bay Battalion has a clearer picture of its fight for an Eastern Conference playoff berth.
“We’re down to the short strokes now — that’s where we’re at,” coach Stan Butler said Wednesday as the Battalion prepared to face the Barrie Colts at 7 p.m. Thursday in its first home game since Feb. 16, a 4-1 victory over the Niagara IceDogs.
“We’ve got nine games left, we’re two points behind and we’ve got to find ways to win hockey games, because the teams in front of us are going to win some games and we’ve got to make sure we win some as well.”
North Bay has a won-lost-extended record of 22-33-4 for 48 points, fourth in the Central Division and ninth in the conference. The Ottawa 67’s, fifth in the East Division at 22-31-6, and Niagara, third in the Central at 20-29-10, have 50 points apiece and are tied for seventh place in the conference.
North Bay, Ottawa and Niagara all have nine games left in the 68-game regular season and are to play three a week before the schedule ends March 19.
That constitutes 26 games that may or may not determine the playoff qualifiers, with one head-to-head meeting among the three teams seeing the Battalion visit the IceDogs on March 12.
If there’s a tie for eighth place, the last playoff position, a one-game tiebreaker is required, with home ice determined by more wins, which is the first tiebreaker for all other deadlocks in the standings.
The Battalion has five home and four road games left, with a home record of 10-17-2 and a road log of 12-16-2. Ottawa also has five home and four away games to play, having gone 10-18-1 at home and 12-13-5 off the bus. Niagara, which like the Troops has just completed a stretch of five road games, posting the same 2-3-0 record, has seven home dates and two away games. The IceDogs are 12-11-4 at home and 8-18-6 away.
While North Bay and Ottawa have wrapped up their games against Western Conference teams, Niagara has three left, all this weekend. The IceDogs play host to the Kitchener Rangers on Thursday night, visit the Erie Otters on Friday night and entertain Erie on Sunday. The Otters will play three games in as many days, hosting the Sarnia Sting on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to play with good energy and play with a sense of desperation,” Butler noted of the visit by the Colts, a road game Friday night against the Mississauga Steelheads and a home date Sunday against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
“Barrie obviously doesn’t have a good record this year, but neither do we. I don’t think we’re the type of team, quite frankly, that we can look at any game without it being a real challenge for us.”
The Battalion has been hampered by injuries, illness and suspensions, with the roster in flux virtually game by game. Butler said that the Troops hope to be bolstered by as many as four junior A players this weekend, including left winger Brett Hahkala of the Powassan Voodoos, who played all three games of a 1-2-0 road trip last weekend that ended with a 5-2 loss Sunday to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Players from the affiliated Powassan club are restricted to 10 OHL games, but the Battalion can call on floating affiliates on its protected list who play elsewhere, including the Ottawa-based Gloucester Rangers.
“I think Eric Nagy’s going to play, so that will be his 10th game and his last game,” Butler said of the Voodoos defenceman. “Hopefully, if the weather stays okay, (right winger) Alex Robert’s going to come from Ottawa to play, but then he’s not available the rest of the weekend.
“Bo Peltier I think’s going to dress Friday and Sunday, and I’m just waiting on word from Jimmy Bruce on whether we can have Hahkala for those two games as well.”
Powassan rearguard Peltier has played three games with the Troops.
Cam Dineen skated at practice but, Butler said, he likely still is three to four weeks away from returning from a knee injury, while fellow defenceman Riley Bruce is to undergo shoulder surgery in Ottawa on Monday and faces a six-month rehabilitation period.
Barrie is 15-37-7 for 37 points, the worst record in the league.
Anthony Stefano leads the Colts offensively with 19 goals and 28 assists for 47 points in 53 games, while fellow left winger Lucas Chiodo has 20 goals and 26 assists for 46 points in 59 games. Centre Zachary Magwood has 15 goals and as many assists for 30 points in 55 games.
Centre Brett McKenzie tops the Troops with 27 goals and 34 assists for 61 points in 58 games, and right winger Steve Harland has 24 goals and 32 assists for 56 points in 59 games. Right winger Justin Brazeau has 20 goals and 12 assists for 32 points from 58 games, while defenceman Adam Thilander has 32 points from five goals and 27 assists in 55 games.