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Ottawa poses tough test

NORTH BAY, Ont. — For the last time this season, the North Bay Battalion has only two games on its schedule this week, but each poses a stiff challenge.

The Ottawa 67’s, who boast the best record in the Ontario Hockey League, visit Memorial Gardens at 7 p.m. Thursday before the Saginaw Spirit pays a call Sunday. They’re the second and third of four consecutive home dates for the Battalion.

Ottawa, with a won-lost-extended log of 42-9-1 for 85 points, sits atop the East Division and Eastern Conference, while Saginaw, 34-16-4 for 72 points, is first in the West Division of the Western Conference. North Bay, the league’s youngest team, is 13-38-3 for 29 points, fifth in the Central Division, 10th in the Eastern Conference and last in the OHL.

But the Battalion, which ended an eight-game losing streak with a 4-0 road victory Saturday night over the Barrie Colts, followed up with a 3-2 overtime win Sunday against the visiting Mississauga Steelheads. Having lost 5-4 in overtime at home last Thursday night to the Sarnia Sting, the Troops have garnered at least a point in three straight games for only the second time this season.

“It was a step in the right direction,” interim coach Ryan Oulahen said Wednesday of the Battalion’s set of back-to-back wins.

Oulahen said the team concentrated on the front of its own net as an area for improvement and results flowed from there.

“That one area of the ice being our focus really started getting our game going.”

The play of rookie goaltender Joe Vrbetic, who stopped 41 shots at Barrie for his first OHL shutout and made another 38 saves against Mississauga, certainly helped.

“He got into a rhythm,” said Oulahen. “He was square and calm.”

The Battalion already has made both its visits to Ottawa this season, losing 6-1 on Dec. 1 and 9-1 on Feb. 9.

“We’re just going to talk about the challenge,” allowed Oulahen. “You’ve got to get excited about these types of moments as an athlete, because that’s the measuring stick.

“They’re the best team in Canada for a reason.”

Vrbetic has played in 37 games, posting a goals-against average of 4.38, a save percentage of .879 and a record of 11-24-0.

“You know it’s going to be a hard game, but you’ve just got to play your best and try to keep the momentum going from the weekend,” he said of the date with the 67’s.

Ottawa centre Marco Rossi leads the OHL in points production with 33 goals and a league-high 66 assists for 99 points in 46 games, while right winger Jack Quinn has 45 goals and 33 assists for 78 points in 52 games. Left winger Austen Keating has scored 28 goals and earned 47 assists for 75 points in 48 games, and defenceman Noel Hoefenmayer has 23 goals and 51 assists for 74 points in 52 games. Left winger Joseph Garreffa has contributed 28 goals and 45 assists for 73 points in 42 games.

Centre Luke Moncada paces the Battalion with a team-leading 29 goals and 23 assists for 52 points in 54 games, and right winger Brandon Coe has scored 19 goals and added a team-high 30 assists for 49 points in 52 games. Right winger Mitchell Russell has 21 goals and 20 assists for 41 points in 50 games.

Russell has a goal in each of the last three games, including an empty-netter at Barrie.

The Ottawa game sees Teachers Life present Talk Today. The Canadian Mental Health Association, which works with the Battalion and OHL on mental health initiatives, will have a kiosk in the concourse.

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