NORTH BAY, Ont. — While the North Bay Battalion is battling down the stretch to secure a position in the Ontario Hockey League postseason, in some respects the playoffs already have started.
“Tomorrow night it’s two desperate teams that both need to win the game,” coach Stan Butler said Tuesday as the Battalion prepared to host the Sudbury Wolves at 7 p.m. Wednesday. “Our playoffs started a long time ago. We’ve got a few mulligans, but I think we’re running out of those.”
The injury-depleted Battalion, fourth in the Central Division, has a won-lost-extended record of 22-34-6 for 50 points, ninth in the Eastern Conference, and faces Sudbury three times, including twice at home, in its final six games.
The Ottawa 67’s, fifth in the East Division and sixth in the conference, are 24-32-6 for 54 points, while Sudbury is second in the Central and seventh in the conference at 23-31-7 for 53 points. The Niagara IceDogs, third in the Central, are eighth in the conference with a 21-31-10 record for 52 points.
Sudbury has seven games to play in the regular season, including a makeup date at the Mississauga Steelheads on March 21, two days later than all other teams complete the schedule. Both Ottawa and Niagara have six games left.
The top eight finishers qualify for the conference quarterfinals. If there’s a tie for the final playoff berth, a tiebreaker game is played. The first tiebreaker in all other deadlocks is more wins, which is used to determine home ice for any tiebreaker game.
“We’ve got to find ways to win hockey games here,” said Butler, whose charges visit the Barrie Colts on Saturday night and Niagara on Sunday to wrap up the second-last weekend of the schedule.
“If we don’t win and they don’t win, we stay where we are, so we’ve got to play it one game at a time. Next up is Sudbury, and we’ve got to be ready for them.”
David Matsos, the Wolves’ head coach, also recognizes the reality.
“Wednesday is as big a playoff game as we have, and that is how we have to approach it,” Matsos told the Sudbury Star newspaper after a 7-1 road loss Sunday to the Windsor Spitfires.
Sudbury has lost its last four games and is 2-9-1 in its last 12. North Bay has lost four straight, including a 4-3 overtime setback last Thursday night to the visiting Colts, who have been eliminated from playoff contention, and a 5-4 home-ice loss via shootout Sunday to the Hamilton Bulldogs.
“Our Hamilton game wasn’t bad,” said Butler, whose Troops lost 4-1 Friday night at Mississauga. “I thought the 60 minutes was pretty good. We were very weak in the overtime.”
Butler said that defenceman and captain Riley Bruce underwent successful shoulder surgery Monday in Ottawa and has a six-month rehabilitation period.
Rearguard Cam Dineen isn’t expected back from December knee surgery before the playoffs, and the Troops also have been missing forwards Jacob Ball and Daniil Vertiy, defenceman Eric Allair and goaltender Mat Woroniuk.
Left winger Vertiy skated at practice Tuesday in a red no-contact sweater, but it wasn’t known whether he’ll play against Sudbury.
“When you have less than 20 players every game, you’re held hostage,” noted Butler. “You don’t really have a choice. It’s not like I can bench guys.”
Centre Dimitry Sokolov leads the Sudbury offence with a team-high 42 goals and 22 assists for 64 points in 57 games, while left winger David Levin is second with 18 goals and 31 assists for 49 points in 59 games. Centre Ryan Valentini has 17 goals and 29 assists for 46 points from 60 games and left winger Macauley Carson 26 goals and 19 assists for 45 points in 61 games.
Centre Brett McKenzie paces the Battalion with a team-leading 28 goals and 36 assists for 64 points in 61 games, and right winger Steve Harland has 25 goals and 36 assists for 61 points in 62 games. Defenceman Adam Thilander has five goals and 29 assists for 34 points in 58 games, while right winger Justin Brazeau has 33 points, including 21 goals, in 61 games.