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Troops ready for home ice

NORTH BAY, Ont. — Home ice at Memorial Gardens figures to look pretty good to the North Bay Battalion when the Kitchener Rangers visit at 7 p.m. Thursday.

The Battalion, having just completed a season-high six straight road games, plays host to Kitchener in a rematch of a 4-2 road loss last Friday night before a home-and-home set with the Barrie Colts starting Saturday night at Barrie and wrapping up at North Bay on Sunday, which marks the start of the Ontario Hockey League’s Christmas break.

The Battalion, with a won-lost-extended record of 11-18-2 for 24 points, fifth in the Central Division, is 1-10-1 in its last 12 games, eight of which have been on the road. The lone win was a 5-2 decision Nov. 23 over the host Mississauga Steelheads.

Most recently, the Troops lost 5-2 last Saturday night to the Niagara IceDogs and 5-1 Sunday to the Hamilton Bulldogs.

“I think they’re as close to a must-win weekend of games as you can get,” Battalion assistant coach Adam Dennis said Wednesday. “It’s important that you go into this break with some good feelings, and that’s what we want to do. We want to have a good weekend here and make sure that our guys know going into this break that we’ve got something good on the way.”

Barrie, fourth in the division, seven points ahead of the Battalion with a game in hand, entertains the Sudbury Wolves on Thursday night.

Dennis suggested there’s no magic formula for turning around the Troops’ fortunes.

“You’ve got to put your nose down and you’ve got to work through these kinds of things. You’ve got to learn from your past experiences, and I think in past instances where we felt sorry for ourselves there’s definitely not been any payback, so it’s about learning from them and about fixing it.

“It’s a 68-game season for a reason. We’re sitting here at Game 31, so there’s lots of hockey left to play.”

The Battalion has 21 home games left against 16 on the road, so the schedule appears somewhat more favourable, but the fact remains that only results count.

“I would say it’s safe to say we’re underperforming,” allowed Dennis. “We’ve got some players that are good enough to help get our team out of this. I think we’ve had good spurts from each of our groups, from our young defence, from our goaltending. They just haven’t seen the lineup all at the right time so far.

“The pieces are here; the pieces are in our dressing room, and we expect our guys to right it.”

Centre Mason Primeau was acquired in a trade Nov. 15 from the Guelph Storm and has played 12 games with the Troops, scoring six goals and earning five assists for 11 points while enduring the stretch worth just one win.

“Every day at the rink the guys have a pretty positive attitude,” noted Primeau. “We’re doing our best to fix it and hopefully we can start this weekend.”

The Battalion has stayed close in a number of games with quality teams, proving its competitiveness.

“You look at Kitchener and Niagara,” said Primeau. “We’re with them with 10 minutes left in the third and, instead of finding ways to win games, we’re finding ways to lose games, so I think it’s just something we’ve got to continue to work on. I think things will turn around eventually and we’ll just continue to gain momentum from there.”

Dennis and fellow assistant Scott Wray have manned the bench since head coach Stan Butler went on medical leave Sept. 30. Butler, also the director of hockey operations, resumed his administrative duties last week, and a full return is expected soon.

“From talking to him every day, he seems to be feeling better, and we hope to have him back soon,” said Dennis.

Defenceman Cole Cameron, whom the Battalion traded to Kitchener last week to make room for overage left winger Luke Burghardt, returning from a spinal condition that saw him quit hockey last summer, played his first game with the Rangers against the Troops and is expected to be in the lineup for the second engagement.

Kitchener is 13-15-3 for 29 points, fourth in the Midwest Division.

Centre Rickard Hugg and right winger Greg Meireles lead the Rangers with 35 points apiece, Hugg with 15 goals and 20 assists in 30 games and Meireles with 12 goals and 23 assists in 31 games. Defenceman Joseph Garreffa has eight goals and a team-high 24 assists for 32 points in 31 games, while centre Riley Damiani has scored 13 goals and earned 18 assists for 31 points in 25 games.

Right winger Justin Brazeau paces the Battalion with team-leading totals of 26 goals, 27 assists and 53 points in 31 games, tied with Tye Felhaber of the Ottawa 67’s and Kevin Hancock of the Owen Sound Attack for third place in league scoring.

Centre Matthew Struthers has 14 goals and 20 assists for 34 points in 24 games, and left winger Brad Chenier has scored 12 goals and added 18 assists for 30 points in 31 games. Adam McMaster, who has played centre and left wing, has 12 goals and 14 assists for 26 points from 31 games.

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