NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion, scrapping for an Ontario Hockey League playoff berth, completes a season-high stretch of five away games with a three-game road trip through Michigan and Northern Ontario this weekend.
The Battalion faces the Flint Firebirds at 7 p.m. Friday before visiting the Saginaw Spirit on Saturday night and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds on Sunday in a trek that coach Stan Butler likened to a Western Hockey League swing.
“It’s a tough road trip in October, let alone this time of the year, to play three games in two days, because the third game’s in the afternoon in the Sault,” said Butler, who knows something of WHL schedule demands, having coached the Prince George Cougars in 1996-97.
The Battalion has a won-lost-extended record of 21-31-4 for 46 points, fourth in the Central Division and tied with the Ottawa 67’s for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. North Bay and Ottawa are two points behind the Niagara IceDogs, each with a game in hand on the St. Catharines-based club.
The Troops, beset by injuries and suspensions, won two of three games last weekend, defeating the visiting IceDogs 4-1 Thursday night and the host Sudbury Wolves 3-2 in overtime Friday night before a 6-1 road loss Saturday night to the Barrie Colts.
Butler said Wednesday that he didn’t expect any of defencemen Cam Dineen and Riley Bruce and forwards Brett Hargrave, Jacob Ball and Daniil Vertiy back this weekend. In addition, left wingers Daniel Walker and Max Kislinger have suspensions from the Sudbury game, Walker for a match penalty for a slew-foot and Kislinger for a checking-from-behind major.
“Walker’s got one more game,” Butler noted of the rookie, who sat out at Barrie.
“I’m just waiting with the league but, unofficially, I believe Kislinger has two games, which would mean he has one more game but, other than that, Vertiy won’t be here this weekend. Ball’s getting an MRI tomorrow in Toronto, so he won’t be playing, and Hargrave started to skate yesterday, but I don’t know how close he is to being ready.”
The Battalion will have two members of the Powassan Voodoos of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League aboard the bus but, as affiliate players, they’re limited to 10 OHL games.
“This weekend we’re taking Andy Baker with us, and he’s going to play the first two games Friday and Saturday,” said Butler. “Then he’ll be at the magical number of 10, so Sunday he’ll get to eat popcorn in the Sault to get ready for his game with the Voodoos on Monday night.
“We’ll be bringing up one other guy. Baker will be done at 10. (Eric) Nagy’s at nine; he’s got one more. Not only do we have injuries, we’re pretty well maxing out our AP numbers as well.”
The situation with injuries and suspensions, which Butler said is unprecedented in his 22-year major junior career, has left a bad taste in the coach’s mouth.
“It’s like a salad, six injuries and two suspensions. You mix it all up and, for a hockey coach, it doesn’t taste too good.”
Given the stress on the roster, Butler noted, players have to show more restraint.
“Guys have got to wisen up and be smarter. Understand the situation. It’s like Max there. He’s trying to make a hard hockey play but, if you’re in doubt, it’s better just to leave the guy alone.”
Flint, under first-year head coach Ryan Oulahen, a former Battalion assistant, is 28-23-5 for 61 points, third in the West Division and seventh in the Western Conference. The Firebirds have won their last two games and are 7-2-1 in their last 10.
Centre Ryan Moore, fifth in the league in scoring, paces the offence with 34 goals and 41 assists for 75 points in 56 games, while right winger Kole Sherwood has 29 goals and 38 assists for 67 points in 48 games. Left winger Nicholas Caamano has 27 goals and 24 assists for 51 points from 55 games.
Left winger Maurizio Colella, whom the Troops traded Jan. 6 for a fifth-round pick in the 2019 OHL Priority Selection, has seven goals and as many assists for 14 points in 18 games with Flint.
Centre Brett McKenzie leads Battalion scoring with 27 goals and 32 assists for 59 points in 55 games. Steve Harland has 24 goals and 31 assists for 55 points from 56 games, and fellow right winger Justin Brazeau has scored 18 goals and earned 12 assists for 30 points in 55 games.
The game at Flint can be heard live on Country 600 CKAT.