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It's a playoff war of attrition for the Troops

North Bay wins 4-1 over the Niagara IceDogs, are now one point behind Ottawa for eighth in the Eastern Conference

The North Bay Battalion avenged last weekend's loss in Niagara to the IceDogs with a 4-1 victory on home ice Thursday. The Troops won for the first time since Groundhog Day, led by two goals from Brett McKenzie and one goal and one assist from Steve Harland. Brent Moran made 33 saves in the win.

Head Coach Stan Butler said he was "pretty happy with the second and third periods. I thought we started slow, but in the last half of the first period, we were a lot better."

Heading into Thursday night's OHL action, the North Bay Battalion, Ottawa 67's and Niagara IceDogs found themselves in a game of musical chairs in which one of the three will be left without a playoff spot. Just two points now separate the three teams after Thursday's games.

The Troops, ninth in the conference, were on a five-game losing streak and had a 1-8-0-1 record to show for their last ten games before Thursday's win. North Bay dropped a 4-0 decision to the IceDogs last Saturday, followed by a 7-4 loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Oshawa Generals Sunday.

Neither of their rivals in the playoff race is lighting the world on fire lately. The 67's have lost four straight and are 2-8-0-0 in their last ten, while the IceDogs are 2-5-2-1 spanning their last ten.

It's an all-Central Division slate for the Troops this weekend. Including the home game against Niagara, the Troops face the Sudbury Wolves Friday night in Shelbyville and Saturday night versus the Colts in Barrie. It is an understatement to say that these are crucial games when it comes to North Bay's playoff aspirations.

Following the weekend's games, the Battalion will play their next three away, making it five straight road games before the Troops return to Memorial Gardens face the Colts on March 2.

Battalion defenceman Eric Allair returned to the lineup following a few weeks on the shelf and goaltender Julian Sime dressed as Brent Moran's backup following his hospitalization after being injured in last Thursday's loss to the Guelph Storm. Defencemen Cam Dineen and Riley Bruce, forwards Brett Hargrave and Jacob Ball, and goaltender Mat Woroniuk did not dress. Zach Poirier was serving the second game of a two-game suspension. Poirier will be available for this weekend's games.

With the stakes raised and a playoff berth hinging on every goal and mistake, the first period was a cautious one for both teams. 

Kyle Potts took a dubious slashing penalty 8:05 into the period, but the Troops killed that one off without incident.

With 4:36 to play in the first, Oliver Castleman burst behind the North Bay defence, sprung by a perfect lead pass from winger Justin Brack. Castleman collected the puck at the North Bay blueline, sped in on Moran, and beat the netminder to the glove side.

As time expired, Steve Harland and Brett McKenzie broke in on IceDogs starter Stephen Dhillon, but the goalie turned away McKenzie's last-second shot with his right pad.

At the end of one period of play, Niagara led 1-0, while the Battalion had a 17-10 advantage in shots-on-goal.

As a carried-over Daniil Verity hooking penalty expired, Justin Brazeau was whistled for a high-sticking minor 49 seconds into the second period.

North Bay winger Max Kislinger had a shorthanded breakaway chance, but he was thwarted by a Dhillon poke-check that sent the goaltender's stick careening into the side boards.

Seconds later, McKenzie stole the puck at the hash marks in the Niagara zone, but he could not get a handle on the puck to slide it past Dhillon.

Then, Brazeau took a pass in stride across the Niagara blueline after stepping out of the box, but he missed wide.

At 4:06, IceDogs defenceman William Lochead cross-checked North Bay's Adam McMaster hard into the boards in the neutral zone. Zach Shankar, jumping to McMaster's defence, and Lochead exchanged pleasantries but were separated by the linesman, putting the Troops on the powerplay.

It was McMaster who had the best chance, swooping in on the right wing, cutting hard to the net, but ultimately shooting the puck into Dhillon's chest protector.

With 44 seconds to go in a Dhillon penalty for holding, Harland circled the net, his wrap-around attempt sliding past McKenzie as North Bay's leading scorer was deposited into the net behind Dhillon. McKenzie stayed inside the net as chaos ensued around him. Eventually, the whistle was blown and Aaron Haydon was sent off for interference.

The Troops worked the puck around with the two-man advantage, with a quick pass resulting in a Harland tap-in opportunity that could not have been more wide open. Harland looked to the sky in disbelief.

After the win, Harland reflected on the missed chance, saying "it was a pretty open net, so that was frustrating. Luckily, I got a good bounce after that and scored."

At 11:44, the Battalion finally drew even. On a play contested by the IceDogs staff, Kyle Potts pushed a puck that Dhillon thought he had secured under his pad into the net. Potts' powerplay marker, his ninth overall, was assisted by Mark Shoemaker and Shankar.

Harland put the Troops ahead as an Adam Thilander point shot deflected off of Harland and into the IceDogs net. Harland's 23rd was also assisted by Daniel Walker.

"After we went up 2-1, we settled in and played a pretty good game. I think the type of third period we played is what the fans here are used to, in the first three years, where we finish the game off," said Butler.

With six minutes to play in the second, Troops defenceman Jesse Saban started a fight with  Niagara's Ryan Smith to the right of Moran. Both players received five minutes for fighting, while Saban was also assessed a two-minute penalty for instigating and a ten-minute misconduct.

The Troops led 2-1 on the scoreboard and 28-22 in shots after two periods.

After the flurry of activity in the second period, the third period started out cautiously for both teams, neither wanting to make the mistake that would swing the outcome of the game.

At 11:06, McKenzie notched his 25th of the season, made possible by a slick feed from Harland, giving the Troops a 3-1 lead.

With Dhillon pulled in favour of the extra attacker, McKenzie got his second of the game, unassisted, to put the game out of reach.

Final shots favoured the Troops 40-34.

The Troops are in Sudbury to face the Wolves Friday night at 7 p.m. and the Colts in Barrie Saturday at 7 p.m.