Troops keep pace in playoff race

NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion, backed by goaltender Julian Sime’s 23-save shutout, stayed in the thick of the Ontario Hockey League’s Eastern Conference playoff race with a 4-0 victory Thursday night over the Sudbury Wolves.

North Bay moved its won-lost-extended record to 24-36-6 for 54 points, fourth in the Central Division, one point behind third-place Sudbury for the eighth and final conference playoff berth. The Troops are two points behind the Niagara IceDogs, who lost 4-1 to the visiting Mississauga Steelheads, and four behind the idle Ottawa 67’s.

The Battalion, which visits Sudbury at 7 p.m. Friday to complete a home-and-home set, got an empty-net goal and one assist from Adam McMaster and its other goals from Brett Hargrave, Brett McKenzie and Zach Poirier before a crowd of 3,019.

Goaltender Jake McGrath made 35 saves for Sudbury, which is 24-34-7 for 55 points and has three games left in the schedule to North Bay’s, Niagara’s and Ottawa’s two apiece. The Wolves would have clinched a postseason berth with a win.

“The guys sent a clear message that they’re not done yet,” said John Dean, who ran the bench with fellow assistant coach Adam Dennis while Stan Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach, scouted the OHL Cup minor midget tournament at Toronto but was credited with his 700th Canadian Hockey League win.

“We know we’re in a playoff race. I’m really happy with the game, but it doesn’t mean anything unless we go in there tomorrow and have a really good game as well. Tonight was a real complete game. There’s 23 guys who know what we’re capable of, and the pressure is on us to go in there and work our butts off tomorrow.”

Dean praised the performance of Sime, who recorded his second shutout since being acquired from the junior A Mississauga Chargers on Nov. 29 when both Brent Moran and Mat Woroniuk were injured.

“Sime was fantastic for us tonight. He made big saves when he had to. We talked to the guys before the game and said there were going to be spots where things get tough and Sudbury brings it, and every time Sudbury brought it Sime was up to the task.”

The Battalion dominated the first period, outshooting the visitors 16-5 and scoring the only goal when Hargrave finished off a two-on-one rush by ripping a Rhys Forhan feed past McGrath’s glove from the right-wing circle at 10:18. Zach Shankar also assisted on the 15th goal of the season for Hargrave, who scored the Troops’ only goal in a pair of road losses last weekend.

North Bay struck for two goals in a span of 2:02 in the middle period, starting with McKenzie’s team-leading 29th at 9:56. McGrath made two excellent close-in saves on McKenzie just minutes before he found himself alone to the goaltender’s left and deposited a cross-ice Max Kislinger pass into a gaping net. Steve Harland earned the second assist.

Poirier scored his 14th goal at 11:58, spinning in the mid slot and firing the puck over McGrath’s blocker. McMaster and Shankar drew the assists.

Sudbury’s Alan Lyszczarczyk had two chances at the right post in the fifth minute. Sime denied a Dmitry Sokolov drive in the seventh minute and foiled Macauley Carson at the lip of the crease in the 17th.

The Wolves’ best chance to rally came at 1:14 of the third period when Shankar was assessed an interference major and game misconduct for a check on David Levin, who lay on the ice for a time. There was no penalty call from referees Brent Coulombe and Jason Faist until an officials’ conference after the next stoppage.

Sime was tested only three times during the five-minute power play but had no problem on chances for Sokolov, Carson and the suddenly spry Levin. The Wolves, who had nine shots in the period, put McGrath on the bench for a sixth skater with 3:27 to play, but Sudbury failed to apply pressure.

McMaster finished the scoring into the empty net at 19:25, with Justin Brazeau assisting on rookie McMaster’s fifth goal.

The game at Sudbury can be heard live on Country 600 CKAT.

BATTALION BULLETS: The absent Butler was credited with moving his all-time CHL won-lost-tied record to 700-724-70, including 672-685-65 in 19 seasons with the Battalion in Brampton and North Bay. He coached the Oshawa Generals for two years starting in 1994-95 and the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars in 1996-97 … McKenzie played a 262nd game, tying Chris Rowan for seventh place on the franchise list … Harland has four goals and six assists for 10 points in seven games against Sudbury … Sime, who blanked the visiting Flint Firebirds 6-0 on Dec. 8, has North Bay’s only shutouts … Battalion defenceman Brady Lyle played his 100th OHL game … The Troops went 0-for-3 on the power play. Sudbury was 0-for-6 … Attendance, which included two busloads of Wolves fans, was the third-largest of the season at Memorial Gardens … Opening lines included McKenzie centring left winger Kislinger and right winger Harland, Kyle Potts centring McMaster on left wing and right winger Brazeau and Poirier pivoting left winger Brad Chenier and Daniil Vertiy on right wing. Hargrave centred Alex Robert on left wing and right winger Forhan … The Battalion scratched Eric Allair, Cam Dineen, Riley Bruce, Jacob Ball and Woroniuk … Forward Daniel Walker, who took shifts on defence, fought Sudbury’s Liam Dunda in the second period … Robert was recalled from the junior A Gloucester Rangers.

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