NORTH BAY, Ont. — With apologies to Charles Dickens, the settling Sunday of the final playoff spot in the Ontario Hockey League’s Eastern Conference was a tale of two cities … and four teams.
The Kingston Frontenacs rallied to defeat the host North Bay Battalion 5-4, denying the Troops a home-ice tiebreaker game Tuesday night against the Niagara IceDogs for the eighth and last conference quarterfinal berth despite Niagara’s 6-1 road loss to the Mississauga Steelheads.
North Bay ended the season with a won-lost-extended record of 24-38-6 for 54 points, fourth in the Central Division, two points behind Niagara at 23-35-10. The Troops would have hosted a tiebreaker on the basis of more wins, 25-23.
Niagara coach David Bell was glad to have avoided such a game, telling the St. Catharines Standard: “I would rather stick warm knitting needles in my eyes than go to North Bay on Tuesday.”
Coach Stan Butler, whose Battalion finished ahead of only the Barrie Colts in the division and conference, lamented the injury-ravaged Troops’ inability down the stretch to take advantage of any number of opportunities provided by helpful results elsewhere, including the Sudbury Wolves’ 4-3 victory at Niagara on Saturday night.
“We shouldn’t have put ourselves in that predicament,” Butler said Monday, when the Battalion conducted exit interviews. “We lost five games to teams that had less points than us this year. We lost to Barrie twice in the last couple of weeks. We blew a lot of games early in the year that we needed to win.
“Sometimes in life, you get out of it what you put in, and pretty much this year we just didn’t get the job done.”
Kyle Potts, Justin Brazeau and Zach Poirier scored second-period goals to give North Bay a 3-1 lead against Kingston, which needed a win to secure fourth place in the conference and home-ice advantage over the Hamilton Bulldogs in a first-round playoff series.
Rookie defenceman Jakob Brahaney scored his first OHL goal to pull the Frontenacs within 3-2 through 40 minutes, and the visitors erupted for three goals in the first 5:44 of the third period.
Defenceman Zach Shankar responded at 16:08, and the Battalion pressed in an effort to save its season, pulling goaltender Brent Moran for a sixth attacker with 57 seconds left, but Kingston counterpart Jeremy Helvig held the fort.
“I thought we played pretty solid,” said sidelined Battalion rearguard Cam Dineen, who underwent knee surgery in December and likely would have been cleared to return for Game 3 of a quarterfinal.
“Obviously, if you were watching the game, it looked like we were really working hard and we had our chances at the end even to tie it up, but we kind of came out a little flat in the third and they just put some goals in right away, and that kind of deflated us.”
Some observers suggested that Brett Neumann’s goal 1:33 into the final period, which tied the game 3-3, came after a holding foul by Nathan Dunkley, who had the primary assist, on Shankar. Butler mentioned the play in his comments after the game, and Brady Lyle alluded to it Monday.
“We felt like we played pretty good for two periods in the game yesterday, and there’s a goal we’d like back in a game that had a lot of meaning to our whole season,” said defenceman Lyle.
Fellow North Bay native Brett Hargrave, a first-round pick by the Sarnia Sting in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection whom the Battalion acquired from the Owen Sound Attack on Oct. 2, 2015, played his last game as an overager.
“It was a great experience getting to play here in my home town. It’s something that you always dream of as a kid, and it was pretty cool getting to actually do it.”
Defenceman and captain Riley Bruce, among the walking wounded, noted the challenge that injuries presented.
“We were hoping for a little bit more, but you know this year was a tough year. We had a ridiculous amount of injuries. We had both of our goalies out for an extended amount of time. We had five defencemen who missed games this year. That’s tough to fight through, and it was a tough go.”
Despite all that, the Troops kept their chances alive into the final seconds of their 68th game.
It was left to Brazeau to sum up the disappointment.
“Mississauga did what they needed to do for us, and we couldn’t keep to our own business here.”