Rare air on Highway 17
NORTH BAY, Ont. — Since the North Bay Battalion first faced the Sudbury Wolves in 2013-14, the seasons in which the clubs have been close in the standings, let alone simultaneously high in them, have been rare, but this is one such occasion.
Sudbury and North Bay, which face off at Memorial Gardens at 7 p.m. Thursday in the opener of a home-and-home series, are one point apart atop the Ontario Hockey League’s Central Division standings and one point and two points respectively behind the Brantford Bulldogs, the East Division team that leads the Eastern Conference.
Sudbury boasts a won-lost-extended record of 23-14-5 for 51 points, while the Battalion is 22-15-6 for 50 points.
In nine completed seasons doing battle, the Highway 17 rivals have been closer than 26 points apart only twice. North Bay topped the division in 2013-14 with 82 points, five more than Sudbury, which tied for the second-most points and officially finished third. In 2016-17, the Wolves were second with 61 points, seven more than the fourth-place Battalion.
The clubs haven’t met in the playoffs since the Troops relocated from Brampton in 2013.
The Battalion has won three of five games this season, while Sudbury has an overtime win and an 8-4 home-ice victory in the most recent meeting, on Dec. 29.
“There’s no question denying the offensive outbursts that they’ve had lately, but I do think that we’ve got some depth now that we can really match up,” said Battalion coach Ryan Oulahen. “We’ve got a full lineup, which is nice.
“I think the best thing to do when you’re playing such a good offensive team is to try to play them in their end as much as possible. That’s for sure going to be the game plan. It’s easier said than done. It’s the things that you do consistently, so it’s shift in, shift out. You don’t want to press the game too much, because that’s when mistakes are going to happen, so we’ve got to come out.
“We’ve got to be controlled. We’ve got to play 60 minutes. No matter what the bounces are going to do, you’ve just got to play like that. It’s kind of like an introduction to playoff hockey, so to speak, and I expect that’s going to be for, you know, six periods against these guys.”
While Oulahen pointed to a third-period fade in a 4-3 overtime win over the host Mississauga Steelheads last Friday night as having led into a 3-2 setback Sunday to the visiting Niagara IceDogs, that meeting with the last-place St. Catharines-based team fully met the definition of a trap game for the Troops, coming as it did before the double date with Sudbury and a Sunday visit by the Barrie Colts.
Sudbury coach Ken MacKenzie was no less mindful than Oulahen of the importance of the set to players and supporters alike.
“You don’t have franchises without good fan bases, and I mean North Bay’s got a great fan base — not quite as good as ours; we think we have the best,” a smiling MacKenzie told The Sudbury Star.
“You always want to play well for your fans. Whether you’re home or on the road, you always see Wolves jerseys in the stands, and they’re no different. Two very proud organizations and, yeah, so close in proximity.”
Noted MacKenzie, in his second tenure as Sudbury’s bench boss: “There’s a lot on the line for both teams, for sure.”
After facing the Battalion twice, Sudbury is idle until next week. Brantford visits Niagara on Thursday night before two home games, against the Kingston Frontenacs on Saturday and Mississauga on Sunday.
The Sudbury game features Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Night presented by Deacon Wealth Management.