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A sweep of Sudbury sends North Bay to Eastern Conference Finals

The Battalion will play in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third consecutive season.

It was a series 11 years in the making, and it felt like it was over in the blink of an eye.

It took just four games for the North Bay Battalion to dispatch their Highway 17 rivals the Sudbury Wolves from the post-season, ending their playoff run with a 5-0 victory in game four on Thursday evening at the Sudbury Community Arena. It was the first time the Battalion and the Wolves had played each other in a playoff series since the Troops relocated to North Bay at the beginning of the 2013 season. The win advances the Battalion to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third straight season, something that hadn’t been accomplished before in franchise history. 

There’s no sugarcoating it, this was a detrimental series to the Wolves who came into the post-season as the highest-scoring team in the league with 328 goals. Four players recorded 30 goals or more, and they had the league’s leading scorer in David Goyette (117), while he and Quentin Musty (102) both eclipsed the century mark in points.  

The Wolves cruised to a 4-1 opening round series win against division rivals the Mississauga Steelheads and looked poised to make things difficult against the Central Division champion North Bay Battalion.  

Considering the Battalion was without its leading scorer in Anthony Romani, their Captain Liam Arnsby, and didn’t have their number one goaltender in Dom DiVincentiis; it looked like the Sudbury Wolves were catching the Troops at the right time.  

But after games one and two went the Troops way on home ice, and the Wolves completely threw away a win in game three, the stage was set for the Wolves to show some kind of life with their season on the line.  

Instead, the Battalion did what they’ve done now through the first two rounds of the post-season, build an early lead and make life difficult for the opponents in the offensive zone and 18-year-old goaltender Mike McIvor turned in another stellar performance, making 36 saves to secure his first career playoff shutout.  

It can’t be overstated how big McIvor has been for the Troops in the absence of DiVincentiis. With just 20 regular season OHL games under his belt, he came in to play just over 40 minutes of the second game of the playoffs and has backstopped the Battalion to seven victories, five of which have come with McIvor allowing two goals or less in the game. He made 139 stops on 147 shots in this series en route to the four-game sweep. 

This was as dominating as it gets in a playoff elimination game. Sandis Vilmanis scored a hat trick and ended the night with four points. Justin Ertel had three assists and Dalyn Wakely had another two-goal performance, giving him five goals in this series and he continues to pace all skaters in the playoffs with 11 goals while he and Vilmanis are tied for the league lead with 15 points. 

The Battalion knew what they wanted to do in this game and the Wolves, as has been the case all series, seemingly had no answer. 

For the fourth time in the series, the Battalion opened the scoring with a first-period goal. This one came just 28 seconds into the contest off the stick of Vilmanis who picked up the puck among a mix of skates in between the hash marks and wasted no time sending the puck toward the net. Goaltender Jakub Vondras looked like he wasn’t ready for the shot and the puck got past him for the opening tally.  

It was the third goal of the post-season for Vilmanis and surprisingly it’s not the fastest goal he’s scored to open a game in this series.

In game two, Vilmanis scored just 24 seconds into the game which the Troops went on to win 5-1. 

The Battalion added to their lead with a power play goal at 2:33 when Wakely potted his 10th of the post-season. One game after netting the OT winner, Wakely was set up in the far-side circle and got a perfect passing play that started with Ertel below the goal line, feeding it to Vilmanis in the near-side circle, who dished it across the slot to a wide open Wakely who slapped in the power play marker to make it 2-0 for the visitors, just like game three. 

Wakely was the intermission guest on the OHL Tonight on Eastlink TV and he was asked about the Troops' wild win in which they led 2-0, trailed 5-2 going into the third, and ended up winning 6-5 in overtime. 

“I think we just got away from ourselves there in the second period and the latter half of the first period,” said Wakely acknowledging the two-goal lead that turned into a three-goal deficit.  

“We weren’t really too focused on our result as much as we were about getting back into the game and just play in their end a little bit more and the results saw themselves through.” 

About midway through the period, McIvor made a huge save, going down into the splits and throwing out his glove to stop a point-blank chance by Dalibor Dvorsky. It was one of 10 saves McIvor made in the opening 20 minutes, with the Wolves out-shooting the Battalion 10-6.  

Vilmanis (4) doubled his playoff goal totals with his second tally of the evening at 17:52. He burst through the neutral zone, muscling his way past a couple Sudbury defenders before getting close to the net and shooting blocker side to put North Bay ahead 3-0 and end Vondras’ night in between the pipes. Vilmanis entered the game tied for second in points in the post-season with 12, 10 of those being assists.  

Ertel picked up an assist on all three first-period goals and Wakely said after 20 minutes of play, the Battalion “started the way we wanted to. We know what happened last game and we need to stay focused and keep giving it to them.” 

The second period on Thursday night looked a lot like the second period on Tuesday night, except the goals weren’t coming for the home side.  

Sudbury held the Battalion to zero shots on goal in the second period and it looked like things were trending in that direction again in Thursday's contest, but after some big stops by McIvor, the Battalion found some life in their legs and managed to get six shots on Marcus Vandenberg in the second frame.  

The Wolves came out in the third, knowing they were going to need one heck of an effort to get back into the game, but once again ‘Money Mike’ McIvor turned aside everything that came his way.  

The Wolves pulled their netminder with six minutes still left in the game and it didn’t pay off as both Wakely and Vilmanis would tack on empty net goals at 15:23 and 17:10 respectively to round out the scoring.  

It’s the seventh time the Battalion has swept a series in franchise history and the second time they have done it against the Sudbury Wolves, beating them 4-0 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2012. 

It also makes North Bay teams undefeated in playoff games against Sudbury as the Centennials swept the Wolves in their only head-to-head playoff meeting in the spring of 1992. 

With the Oshawa Generals sweeping the Ottawa 67s in their second-round series, the Battalion will see a familiar foe in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Generals were the opponents in both the 2014 and 2015 ECFs with the Battalion taking the series in four games in the first matchup, only for Oshawa to come back and win the series 4-2 the following year, going all the way to becoming Memorial Cup Champions.  

The Battalion and the Generals have not faced each other in a playoff series since 2015, setting up an intriguing rubber match.  

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Matt Sookram

About the Author: Matt Sookram

Matthew Sookram is a Canadore College graduate. He has lived and worked in North Bay since 2009 covering different beats; everything from City Council to North Bay Battalion.
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