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Erie feeling grips Battalion

NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion, riding a season-high four-game winning streak, plays a home-ice rematch with the Erie Otters in Ontario Hockey League action starting at 7 p.m. Thursday.

The Battalion opened a two-game weekend road trip with a 5-2 victory Saturday night at Erie before defeating the Hamilton Bulldogs 3-2 Sunday.

“When you play on the road, the pressure’s off,” assistant coach Adam Dennis said Wednesday of the Troops’ road success. “You don’t have to worry about your home fans and keeping them happy.

“The other thing is Erie’s a very hot team right now. They’ve got points in five of their last six. They’re a good young team (with) a lot of similarities to our group, and we’d be crazy to take them lightly.”

The Battalion has a won-lost-extended record of 8-7-0 for 16 points, fifth in the Central Division, while Erie is 6-7-1 for 13 points, fifth in the Midwest Division. The Otters are 5-1-0 in their last six games, including three overtime wins and a victory via shootout. They defeated the visiting Mississauga Steelheads 5-4 in overtime Sunday.

Linemates Matthew Struthers and Justin Brazeau did most of the damage at Erie, with centre Struthers scoring three goals for the first time in his OHL career and adding an assist while right winger Brazeau had one goal and two assists. Brazeau scored the winner at Hamilton, assisted by Struthers and left winger Egor Postnov.

Exiting the weekend, Brazeau led the OHL scoring race with 16 goals and 16 assists for 32 points in 15 games, two points ahead of centre Morgan Frost of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who were to host the winless Flint Firebirds on Wednesday night. Struthers has 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points in 12 games, tied with four others for third place in league scoring.

Dennis wasn’t entirely pleased with the performance of the Battalion, which hasn’t lost since a 4-3 home-ice setback Oct. 18 to Mississauga.

“I didn’t think we were totally up to task on the weekend. I thought we were out-chanced in both games and our goaltending was good, so there are definitely things to work on and we’re only 15 games in. We’d like to be a little bit higher up in the standings when 68 games are done.”

Goaltender Christian Purboo backstopped wins over the visiting Kingston Frontenacs and Barrie Colts before Christian Propp took over at Erie and Hamilton.

“I don’t think that we’ve got total consistency yet from our goaltending, but I think that definitely both of them have shown the ability to be No. 1s in this league,” noted Dennis. “Both of them have shown the ability to steal games.

“I think a lot of their consistency in the last six, seven games has come from a bit more of a commitment to a team defence. They’re both capable guys and, when we lessen the quality of chances for them, I think that they make those saves.”

The Battalion is in the uncustomary position of leading the league in power-play effectiveness, having scored 21 goals in 67 opportunities for a scintillating success rate of 31.3 percent. Hamilton is second at 30.0 percent, but the teams combined to go 0-for-9 Sunday.

The Troops ranked third in penalty killing, behind the London Knights and Sault Ste. Marie after the weekend, with a kill rate of 86.6 percent.

“Obviously, our stats on the special teams are where we would like them to be,” said Dennis. “I think five-on-five there’s definitely still some room (for improvement), but what’s been positive is we’ve had some time in our end and I thought that our guys have shown a lot less panic in the defensive zone, not feeling like they have to cover for their teammates. There’s a lot more trust back there, and that becomes important.”

The Battalion acquired two overage defencemen before and early in the season, in Cole Cameron from the Owen Sound Attack and Theo Calvas from the Sarnia Sting, to bolster a young blue line corps.

Assistant coach Scott Wray has overseen the man-advantage attack.

“Our power play’s done a really good job of possessing the puck, getting entries and then working teams down low where they do get to that point where 20 or 30 seconds in they start to get tired and the seams start to open up,” said Dennis, who continues to man the bench with Wray while head coach Stan Butler is on medical leave.

The Battalion completes weekend play with a visit to the Sudbury Wolves at 3:05 p.m. Sunday.

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