NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion is two games into the Ontario Hockey League season, and talk already has turned to the schedule’s degree of difficulty.
The Battalion plays host to the Oshawa Generals at 7 p.m. Thursday before visiting the Niagara IceDogs on Saturday night and Oshawa on Sunday night.
“All 68 games are important, because at the end of the year the difference in standings could be a point or two, and those points can be made up anywhere through the season,” Stan Butler, Battalion director of hockey operations and head coach, said Wednesday.
“That’s something that we’ve told our guys, that you don’t want to dig yourself into a hole early here and we’ve just got to keep chipping away. We’ve got a tough start to the schedule. Both teams this weekend are teams that people feel will be at the top of the conference, and we’ve just got to chip away and get points against those teams.”
The Troops opened the campaign with a 7-5 home-ice victory last Friday night over the Hamilton Bulldogs, reigning league and Eastern Conference champions, and lost 6-0 Saturday night to the host Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who won the Western Conference title last season after posting the best regular-season record to capture the Hamilton Spectator Trophy.
The seven goals Friday night set a franchise record for season and home openers, eclipsing the total in a 6-0 victory over the London Knights on Sept. 20, 2002, when the Troops were based in Brampton.
“We played a pretty decent game against Hamilton and won,” said Butler. “The road trip to Sault Ste. Marie is a very tough trip, to say the least, to go up and back. You’ve got to give the Sault a lot of credit that night. They were on us right away and they jumped quickly up. We had the first six shots on net, and they scored on their first shot and then from there they kind of took the game over.
“Our compete level this weekend was just okay, and we’ve addressed it with our players. We talked to them and we told them it’s something we need to work on and we need to be better at, and I think they’re a smart enough group that they’re aware of that.”
Butler acknowledged that the player turnover is substantial, with six skaters seeing their first fulltime OHL action.
“We have a big turnover, but we have a lot of good pieces back too. We’ve just got to be patient with our (defence). Our D is very young, and as a result of that they’re going to make mistakes, and they’re mistakes that will only get better as they play more.”
Butler said the Battalion released right winger Andy Baker, who didn’t dress for the first two games, on Tuesday. A 14th-round pick in the 2015 OHL Priority Selection from the North Central Predators minor midgets, he played 73 OHL games over two seasons, scoring 12 goals and adding 14 assists for 26 points. The 19-year-old Port Carling, Ont., resident was the leading scorer for the affiliated Powassan Voodoos of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League in 2016-17 with a league-high 45 goals and 30 assists for 75 points in 53 games.
“He was put on waivers in the league and cleared waivers, so we’re waiting for him to be reassigned to where he wants to go.
“We’re down to 14 forwards and eight defencemen, but we’re still doing evaluations and we’ve still got to cut probably at least one more forward. I think we’ll start with eight defencemen for now, just basically because we have a young D and (Travis) Mailhot’s already been injured and then (Payton) Vescio’s been sick this week. It’s tough with young defencemen, so you probably need a few extra.”
Mailhot, who was hurt in training camp, hasn’t played this season, and Vescio was out of action early at Sault Ste. Marie.
Left winger Harrison Caines didn’t make the trip after being helped off the ice late in the Hamilton game, the victim of a dirty hit by Isaac Nurse that went without a penalty.
“He had a concussion and he’s on the road to recovery,” said Butler. “He’s feeling a little bit better.”