First-place Bulldogs up next

NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion has three games in as many days, starting with a visit by the Hamilton Bulldogs at 7 p.m. Thursday, before the Christmas break in the Ontario Hockey League schedule, and coach Stan Butler is looking to continue recent improved results.

“We need to come into the Christmas stretch here with a few more wins, and that’s what we told our guys, that we’ve got to get some points this weekend and build from there,” Butler said Wednesday.

The Battalion, with a won-lost-extended record of 11-16-4 for 26 points, is third in the Central Division after winning two of three games last week, largely powered by right winger Justin Brazeau, whose five goals and three assists for eight points earned him recognition as the OHL’s Player of the Week for the period ended Sunday, when the Troops downed the visiting Barrie Colts 5-2.

Barrie is first in the division at 17-10-3 for 37 points, while Hamilton leads the East Division and Eastern Conference at 18-7-6 for 42 points.

“We’re very happy for Justin, and it’s great for Northern Ontario hockey,” Butler said of the league honour. “He’s from New Liskeard, which is basically, I believe, a single A community, and he played midget triple A there, and we’re very, very happy with his development from where he came in as a 17-year-old to where he is now.

“He’s a good athlete to begin with, and I think he probably hasn’t had as much formal training as a lot of the other kids, so there’s a lot more room for growth. He’s a guy that gets it. He works hard in the weight room, works hard on the ice and has really worked on his game.”

Brazeau, 19, was a 13th-round pick in the 2014 OHL Priority Selection from the New Liskeard Cubs midgets. He has 23 goals and 13 assists for 36 points in 31 games this season, leading the Troops in scoring and surpassing by one his goals total of last season while playing primarily with centre Brett McKenzie and left winger Luke Burghardt.

“It’s obviously a great honour to be recognized by the OHL for the weekend I had,” said Brazeau. “I had a lot of success this weekend, but it was mostly on the part of my linemates. They really got pucks toward the net, and I was just in the right spot at the right time and was able to bury them.”

He pointed to increased confidence as one of the keys to his success.

“You’re a year older, you’ve got more confidence, you’re more comfortable in the system. I think the coach has a little more trust in you, and you take that and just try to get to the right spots at the right time.

“I think I had a good summer in the weight room. I think I improved my skating, which helps. I’ve always known kind of where to go and be in the right spots, but my skating’s kind of held me back, but I think it’s improved to the point where it’s starting to help me a bit so I’m in the right spots. I know it can get better from there, but I think that’s one of the big things for me.”

Brazeau suggested he’s far from alone in terms of Northern Ontario talent.

“I think a lot of people up here get overlooked. I think we have three guys from our town, one in each league in the (Canadian Hockey League), so I think we get overlooked a little bit just for being where we are, and not as many people want to come up north to watch. But when players from up here go down south, you’ve got to put on your best performance.

“I think the talent is up here. You just have to find it.”

Butler said consistency and goaltending have been important in improved Battalion results.

“We’re more consistent now. I think we’re playing pretty good. I mean the challenge that we’ve got is we dug ourselves in a deep hole. We had an eight-game winless streak and a six-game winless streak, and when you do that you’ve got to get a lot of wins to get back into it.”

Goaltender Christian Propp was acquired from the Owen Sound Attack on Oct. 22 and, after leaving his Battalion debut Oct. 26 early in the first period, has returned from a lower-body injury and boasts a 3-0-1 record with a 2.53 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Partner Julian Sime is 5-11-3 with a 3.43 GAA and .893 save percentage.

“Once Christian could play, I think Julian really stepped up his game too, so our goaltending lately has been really good, and when you get goaltending like we’ve had lately it gives you a really good chance to win,” noted Butler.

Rookie defenceman Travis Mailhot, who lost the first 25 games of the schedule to shoulder and ankle injuries suffered in the preseason and practice, has played five of the last six games.

“He’s done pretty well,” said Butler. “I think he missed half the season, which is tough, and he’s come back now and has played pretty well. I’m pretty happy with how he’s played.”

The Battalion visits the Niagara IceDogs at 7 p.m. Friday and the Erie Otters at 7 p.m. Saturday.

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