NORTH BAY, Ont. — Coach Stan Butler knows the time is now for the North Bay Battalion.
“If we don’t win any games this weekend, we won’t be mathematically eliminated but we’ll definitely put ourselves in a situation where you’re getting closer to be eliminated,” Butler said Wednesday of Ontario Hockey League playoff aspirations as the depleted Troops prepared for a visit by the Niagara IceDogs at 7 p.m. Thursday.
North Bay, with a won-lost-extended record of 19-30-4 for 42 points, is fourth in the Central Division, four points behind Niagara with a game in hand. The Battalion is three points behind the Ottawa 67’s, who hold the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth and, like the Troops, have 15 games left in the regular season.
The Battalion has lost its last five games, including a 4-0 blanking at Niagara last Saturday night and a 7-4 setback Sunday night to the host Oshawa Generals in which the visitors had seven players either injured or sick and forward Zach Poirier serving the first half of a two-game suspension for a boarding major on Niagara’s Danial Singer.
Other scratches were forwards Brett Hargrave, Jacob Ball and Max Kislinger, defencemen Cam Dineen, Riley Bruce and Eric Allair and goaltender Julian Sime.
“We’re hoping to get Kislinger back this weekend, and we do have Allair practising, and that probably will be a game-time decision on Thursday,” said Butler, whose charges are set to play three games in as many nights. “Other than that, Dineen, Bruce, Ball, Hargrave, all those guys are not fit for action, and obviously Poirier’s still got one more game in his suspension.”
The Battalion had right wingers Andy Baker and Alex Robert in the lineup at Oshawa, with each scoring his first OHL goal. Baker leads the Powassan Voodoos of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League in scoring, while Robert, who made his OHL debut, was called up from the Gloucester Rangers of the Central Canada Hockey League. Both will face Niagara.
“I thought they both played pretty well,” Butler said of their showing at Oshawa. “It’s a tough rink to play in.
“Andy’s been a guy who’s scored for the Voodoos all year, and the goal he scored is a goal-scorer’s goal. He took the puck to the net on the power play.
“Robert’s a kid that we thought has an extremely high skill level, but we just felt that with his physical stature — he was about 148 pounds when he came to training camp — he’d probably get hurt playing in our league, so we signed him and sent him back to junior A, and he got hurt there. Since he’s been healthy, he’s really been lighting it up in that league.”
Butler said that the Battalion’s situation has been explained to the players.
“We told them that it’s desperation time but we still have a good chance. If we can beat Niagara on Thursday, then the win they got against us the other night is a wash, so then we’re two points behind them with a game in hand. We’ve got to go from there, but we can’t drop too many more games.”
At that, he expressed puzzlement at the players’ need for explanation.
“I’m surprised that some of our older guys haven’t kind of figured it out, what’s at stake.”
Said Butler: “Our guys are in a situation where we’re going to find out a lot about some of our better guys, and it won’t be anything that I have to say or anybody else has to say. The proof will be in the pudding on results.”
Butler, the director of hockey operations and head coach since the Battalion’s 1998-99 expansion season in Brampton, acknowledged that the current season has been difficult.
“For me, it’s been very frustrating. I’ve always been able to get the most out of every group I’ve had, and this is probably the first group I’ve had in my career where I don’t feel that we’re maximizing what they have.”
Defenceman Ryan Mantha leads Niagara in scoring with 13 goals and 36 assists for 49 points in 53 games, while centre Johnny Corneil has a team-high 24 goals and 23 assists for 47 points from 53 games. Centre Ben Jones has scored 11 goals and added 28 assists for 39 points in 49 games.
Centre Brett McKenzie tops the Troops with 55 points, from team-leading totals of 24 goals and 31 assists in 52 games.
The Battalion stays within the division with visits to the Sudbury Wolves on Friday night and the Barrie Colts on Saturday night.