Troops take heart from fan support

BRAMPTON, Ont. – The season and the Brampton Battalions time at an end, the crowd showered the team with affection in a final farewell.

“That’s really satisfying,” defenceman Zach Bell said after the Sudbury Wolves defeated the Battalion 1-0 in overtime Friday night to capture their Ontario Hockey League first-round playoff series four games to one.

“We’ve kind of been waiting for that for four years. We’ve had some really loyal fans, but just not enough of them. It was great that they came out to support us in the last game in Brampton.

“It gives you goosebumps to hear the support when you’re sitting on the bench, but it’s a great indicator of what’s to come in North Bay next year.”

In an eerie coincidence worthy of an historic occasion, attendance of 2,903 for the final game at Brampton before the move to North Bay next season paralleled the date, the 29th day of the third month.

The host Battalion won the series opener 4-1 before losing four straight, including two home dates. The Troops were in every game, overcoming three-goal deficits in Game 2 at home only to lose 5-4 and in Game 4, a 5-4 overtime loss at Sudbury. The third game saw the visiting Battalion outshoot the Wolves 40-13 in a 3-1 loss that included an empty-net goal.

“There’s a lot of disappointment,” said Brampton resident Bell. “I thought it was our series for the taking. That being said, though, Sudbury played an unbelievable series. I thought we battled pretty hard all series and all season. I’m proud of the guys in here because we never quit and pushed hard until the end.

“A lot of credit on their side needs to go to Franky Palazzese. I know him off the ice. He’s a great guy and a great goaltender, and he stood on his head for them for five games.”

Evan de Haan delivered the series-winning goal at 6:23 of overtime after Battalion goaltender Jake Smith made 21 saves in his first playoff start.

“We battled hard for 60-plus minutes,” said Smith. “We took it to them all game. We wanted it, and it was there for us, but a bad bounce in overtime ended up in the back of the net.”

Said Bell: “Our style is to play responsibly in the defensive zone. We kind of got away from that in the series, and I think that’s what cost us. Game 5 was all or nothing, so we focused on our game and they got a lucky break at the end to bury it, and that’s all she wrote.”

Rookie Smith got his second taste of playoff action after relieving Matej Machovsky in the first period of Game 4 after the starter surrendered a third goal on eight shots. Smith gave up two goals in relief, taking the loss because the Battalion rallied in front of him to get to a 4-4 tie.

“I love these guys more than anything,” said Smith. “These guys are my family, and I just want to battle for them all the time. We played hard, but it didn’t go our way tonight, and that’s the way it goes sometimes.

“It’s definitely a confidence-booster heading into next year. At the same time, it doesn’t take away from the disappointment from the loss. Everyone played hard and just didn’t get the result we wanted.”

Battalion coach Stan Butler, who served three games of a five-game suspension for abuse of an official, was ready to go with Smith for the duration of the series.

“Jake finished the fourth game for us and was really the reason we made it to overtime,” said Butler. “I felt he deserved the opportunity to start Game 5. Obviously, when you look at the game, he played great.

“He’s going to be a good goalie in the league because he’s competitive and he battles. He wants to win and he wants to stop the puck. He gave us a chance to win but, like I said to the assistant coaches, if you can’t score one goal in 60 minutes you don’t deserve to win a hockey game.”

When fans, players, coaches and support staff had departed for the final time, the empty Powerade Centre suddenly looked much older than its 15 years.

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