Overagers played to the end

NORTH BAY, Ont. – Despite a five-game, first-round Ontario Hockey League playoff exit, North Bay Battalion overagers Riley Bruce, Jesse Saban and Jake Henderson kept their major junior careers alive to the fullest Saturday night.

Gabriel Vilardi scored at 14:05 of the third overtime period to secure the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal for the third-place Kingston Frontenacs, but not before the sixth-place Troops played their hearts out in the third-longest game in OHL history.

“It was definitely crazy,” Battalion captain Bruce said Sunday as players went through exit interviews with the coaching staff. “By the end of it, both teams were obviously so tired, and we left everything out there, and if there was a way to lose I guess that would be it.”

Defenceman Bruce, a third-round pick in the 2013 OHL Priority Selection, was the last member of the original North Bay roster of 2013-14 to skate for the club, which relocated from Brampton for that season and went to the league final against the Guelph Storm.

“Winning the Eastern Conference was a huge highlight of my career, but that game last night was something pretty special too.”

The Battalion was active in trades throughout the season, acquiring goaltender Christian Propp and defenceman Nick King from the Owen Sound Attack in separate deals in October, as well as centre Matthew Struthers from Owen Sound, defenceman Braden Henderson from the Sarnia Sting and right winger Jake Henderson from the Kitchener Rangers in January. Centre Brett McKenzie and defenceman Cam Dineen went to Owen Sound and Sarnia respectively in the week before the trade deadline.

“When we moved those two guys out, what happened was we could have gone the other way, like some of the other teams in our league did, but to our credit the kids pushed hard, and some people probably feel that they overachieved to get into the spot they did,” said Stan Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach.

“But that’s a credit to them. They played hard; they never gave up.”

Saban, who joined the Troops from the Hamilton Bulldogs in a trade deadline deal in January, 2017, said the team bonded well after the transactions.

“Everybody after the trades happened knew that we had to come together as a team if we wanted to be successful, and I think we did a really good job of the leaders making sure that everyone was gelling at the time, and I think we had good success after that.”

Saban and Bruce logged big minutes in the series-ending marathon, as did fellow rearguards Adam Thilander, Braden Henderson and King. Travis Mailhot saw a few shifts early, and Eric Allair, recalled after finishing the season with the junior A Powassan Voodoos, had one, on left wing.

“I think me and Brucie both had 60 minutes or so played, so it was a lot of hockey, but it was awesome,” said Saban. “Obviously, you never want to lose in that kind of game, but if there’s one way I can go out I guess I can say it was one of the longest OHL games in the last century or so or however long it was.”

Jake Henderson, whom Butler has called “one of the best midseason acquisitions we’ve ever made,” was a leader without wearing a letter, as Bruce, Saban, Thilander and right winger Justin Brazeau did.

“We had a younger group, so a couple of older guys were looked up to, and like Brucie, five years in North Bay, that’s a long time for one guy on one junior team, so good for him, and Jesse as well, five years of junior,” said Henderson. “It was awesome to be a part of that group, and we went as far as we could and it just didn’t work out.”

Henderson said it was “brotherhood” that kept the Troops driving in the final game.

“You don’t want to go down and be that guy that’s not going to work for your brothers that played the whole game and guys are still trying their hardest to win the game. I would say your heart and dedication to the boys and to the team, and that’s what I think got us motivated to keep going.”

Brazeau, who scored a club-record four goals in a playoff game to help bring the Battalion back from an early 2-0 deficit and give the Troops a 5-4 lead late in the third period, acknowledged that the game was taxing.

“I remember watching one play. Brucie had the puck behind the net, and their guys were taking five seconds, 10 seconds, just to get on. I think everybody was tired, but at that point you’ve just got to keep pushing, and we weren’t able to get the job done.”

Brazeau, who led the Battalion with 39 goals in the regular season, had only one in the first four playoff games.

“I thought the first three or four games I had my chances and pucks weren’t going my way, and then it just seemed like yesterday everything kind of clicked. I’d shoot a puck and it would go off a defenceman and in, so it was kind of nice to get those bounces.”

Added Brazeau: “We pushed a really good team to five games. We were in every single game and could have won every single one.”

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