Troops head back into action

NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion opens the second half of its Ontario Hockey League schedule with three games through the holiday weekend, starting with a visit at 7 p.m. Thursday by the Niagara IceDogs.

North Bay has a won-lost-extended record of 12-18-4 for 28 points, third in the Central Division behind the leading Barrie Colts and Niagara, which is 16-11-5 for 37 points.

“They’re a really good team,” Battalion coach Stan Butler said Wednesday of the IceDogs. “They’re second in our division.

“We had a good game in Niagara, and I’m sure they’re going to be ready for us. It’s going to be one of those funny games, because you’ve been off for 10 days. The boys had one practice today, and it’s almost like starting the preseason again.”

The Battalion, backstopped by goaltender Julian Sime, won 6-3 at St. Catharines on Dec. 15 in the team’s second-last game before the OHL’s Christmas break.

North Bay currently holds the eighth and last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Mississauga Steelheads, who invade Memorial Gardens at 1 p.m. Sunday for the Troops’ annual New Year’s Eve game. The Battalion visits the Oshawa Generals at 2:05 p.m. Monday.

“Obviously, we want to strive to make the playoffs here,” said Butler, whose Troops missed the postseason last spring for just the third time in 19 years. “The last month or so, I think, we’ve been playing better but, when you have an eight-game winless streak earlier in the year and then a six-game as well, you dig yourself in a pretty deep hole, and we’ve got to try stay as consistent as we’ve been lately and try to make up some ground on the teams ahead of us.”

The Battalion went 0-6-2 from Sept. 29 through Oct. 20 and 0-5-1 from Nov. 4-17.

“I think the biggest thing right now is we’ve just got to generate points,” noted Butler. “I’m not going to get too fixated on certain teams or whatever, but obviously we’ve got to find ways to generate points and have a much better second half than we did first half.”

Eighteen of the Battalion’s last 34 games are at home, where the Troops are 7-6-3, while 16 are on the road, where they’re 5-12-1. The team endured a stretch of 16 games from Oct. 26 to Dec. 2 in which 12 dates were against the opposite conference, going 5-9-2 in that span and 3-3-0 since. The remaining schedule features 28 games within the Eastern Conference.

“I think people have got to understand strength of schedule,” said Butler. “We’re done on the road in the Western Conference, and there are a lot of teams on our side that still have a lot of games remaining over there, so it’s really, really hard to tell exactly where teams are until probably the 50-game mark, when schedules get a little bit more balanced.”

While Butler said he’s looking for improved results the rest of the way, he raised a concern about upcoming opponents.

“Up until last year, when we ran into injuries, we’ve always had much better second halves than first halves, and hopefully that’ll happen again this year. But we’ve got some work cut out for us. I think the Eastern Conference is much stronger than it has been in the past and, as a result of that, intra-conference games are going to be extremely difficult.”

Pacing the Niagara offence are right winger Kirill Maksimov with a team-leading 20 goals and 14 assists for 34 points in 30 games and centre Ben Jones with 12 goals and 22 assists for 34 points in 32 games. Akil Thomas has scored eight goals and earned a team-high 25 assists for 33 points in 32 games, and fellow right winger Danial Singer has 13 goals and 12 assists for 25 points, also in 32 games.

Goaltender Stephen Dhillon is 15-7-4 with a 2.92 goals-against average, a .905 save percentage and one shutout in 27 games, while Colton Incze is 1-4-1 with a 2.99 GAA and a .903 save percentage in eight appearances.

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