Playoff fight down to the wire

NORTH BAY, Ont. — It’s not mathematically a must-win game for the North Bay Battalion, but the Sudbury Wolves’ visit at 7 p.m. Thursday is about as close as it comes.

The Battalion, with a won-lost-extended record of 23-36-6 for 52 points, is ninth in the Ontario Hockey League’s Eastern Conference, three points behind Sudbury, which holds eighth place, the last playoff spot, with a 24-33-7 record.

The Wolves can clinch their first playoff berth since 2014 with a victory, while a regulation-time loss for North Bay would mean the Troops would have to win their final two games of the season, at Sudbury on Friday night and at home Sunday against the Kingston Frontenacs, and get help in the form of other results to qualify for the postseason.

The injury-ravaged Battalion did itself no favours last weekend in dropping both games of a road trip, 6-0 Saturday night to the Barrie Colts and 7-1 Sunday to the Niagara IceDogs. The Battalion defeated the visiting Wolves 4-2 last Wednesday night.

“It’s going to take 20 guys, bottom line, and I think it was pretty clear on the weekend that we didn’t have a full 20 guys playing Battalion hockey, and this weekend, tomorrow and the next two games against Sudbury, we need a 20-man effort,” assistant coach John Dean said Wednesday.

“We’re not a team that’s going to go out there and win games because one guy is spectacular. We need 20 guys, four lines rolling, six (defencemen) when healthy and a goalie playing well. If we do that, we’ll be okay.”

Dean spoke in the absence of head coach Stan Butler, who is scouting the OHL Cup minor midget tournament at Toronto at least through Thursday and won’t be on the bench for the visit by Sudbury.

“There’s an issue with consistency — that’s a problem, for sure,” acknowledged Dean, who rejected the suggestion that the Battalion has experienced dressing-room discord.

“I don’t think there’s any undertones inside the dressing room. I think we have a group that, unfortunately, all year’s been inconsistent, and we have to find a way here, with three games to go, to be consistent over three games.”

Dean, set to work the bench with fellow assistant Adam Dennis, said there will be no changes to in-game procedures with Butler away.

“My role is to keep everybody calm and relaxed, obviously, but I’ve been here for three years. A lot of the veterans have been here for three, four years. I’m not going to change anything. They know how the bench is run. We’ll run it very similar to how Stan runs it. We’ll be a four-line team and we’ll get our match-ups when we can, especially on home ice.”

Right winger Alex Robert has been called up from the Gloucester Rangers of the Central Canada Hockey League for all three games this week, while Butler said Monday that Julian Sime will get the start in goal against Sudbury. Brent Moran was pulled in favour of Sime at both Barrie and St. Catharines.

The Ottawa 67’s, who lost a 2-0 home-ice decision to the Peterborough Petes in a Wednesday matinee, are fifth in the East Division and sixth in the conference with a 25-33-8 record for 58 points. Ottawa has two games left in the regular season, hosting the Oshawa Generals on Saturday and the Hamilton Bulldogs on Sunday.

Niagara, second in the Central Division and seventh in the conference, is 23-32-10 for 56 points with three games left. With 55 points, Sudbury is third in the division and has four games to play, including a makeup date at the first-place Mississauga Steelheads next Tuesday night, two days after the rest of the league finishes.

Sudbury visits Niagara on Saturday night before the Mississauga makeup. Niagara hosts the Steelheads on Thursday night before entertaining Sudbury and completing the schedule Sunday at Mississauga.

By winning out, with appropriate results elsewhere, the Battalion, fourth in the Central, still can catch Ottawa and finish as high as a tie for sixth place in the conference, in which case the Troops would be seeded ahead of the 67’s on the basis of more wins.

A tie for the eighth playoff berth necessitates a tiebreaker game, with the team having more wins getting home ice. Such a game is played on the Tuesday after the end of the schedule but, with Sudbury at Mississauga that night, the game would be put back, presumably to Wednesday night, at least if it might involve the Wolves.

Centre Dmitry Sokolov paces the Sudbury attack with 44 goals and 23 assists for 67 points in 60 games, while left winger David Levin has 18 goals and 32 assists for 50 points from 62 games. Centre Ryan Valentini has scored 17 goals and added 30 assists for 47 points in 62 games, and left winger Macauley Carson has 27 goals and 19 assists for 46 points in 64 games.

Centre Brett McKenzie leads North Bay with 28 goals and 37 assists for 65 points in 64 games, while right winger Steve Harland has 27 goals and 36 assists for 63 points in 65 games.

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