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North Bay heads into playoffs on high: CHL Hot & Cold

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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San Jose Sharks signing Barclay Goodrow (left) and Battalion teammate Marcus McIvor (Aaron Bell, OHL Images)

Up in North Bay, the HMCS Battalion might have steered full speed ahead into its own Bermuda triangle.

Now just to be clear, the North Bay Battalion will go into the OHL playoffs as the league's hottest team and as the clear fave in a 2 vs. 7 matchup vs. the young Niagara IceDogs. Yet there's a curious history between the coaches: Stan Butler's Battalion teams are winless in six tries in the post-season vs. teams guided by Marty Williamson in Barrie and Niagara.

A lot of that can be put down to which stage of development each man's roster was at when they met; Williamson had a loaded team in Barrie in 2010 and star-studded casts in '11 and '12 when Niagara swept the Battalion. But it also includes the seventh-seeded Colts, back in '08, bouncing a Battalion bunch that included Matt Duchene. Well, it adds a layer of intrigue to the first round, which is often very straightforward. Here is a survey of who is flowing and ebbing at the outset of the second season. OHL

Hot: North Bay Battalion

The Battalion began the month with a baffling Sunday home loss to Niagara, then tore off six in a row, including a pair of Sudbury and one over Eastern Conference pace-setter Oshawa, to capture the Central Division banner. In more typical Butler-coached team fashion, the Battalion have got scoring from several sources. Sophomore Zach Bratina has a six-game streak of his own, San Jose Sharks signing Barclay Goodrow has nine points over this stretch and first-year Swiss import Vincent Praplan has seven counters.

The Battalion didn't necessarily have that depth last season, when Goodrow was not only the only player to crack 35 goals but the only one to break 20. Combining a more varied attack with the usual stifling defence (187 goals against, third-fewest in the league) could make North Bay very tough in the playoffs. Vancouver Canucks-drafted defenceman Miles Liberati also scored three goals during the streak, in a possible harbinger for a big post-season.

Not: Sudbury Wolves

To paraphrase the great Kingston sportscaster Doug Jeffries, if the Wolves are going for it, then you have to wonder what it is. They made a big splash in January with the deadline deals for Dallas Stars-drafted centre Radek Faksa and Carolina Hurricanes-drafted defender Trevor Carrick, and have proceeded to to go 10-14-0-5 since Jan. 10 to fall into the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. That included going 3-5-0-2 over the last 10 games.

It's not all bleak, though, especially considering that Sudbury will have an edge in goal over first-round Barrie and also won the season series 5-3. The Wolves are the only Eastern team with two 40-goal men in Nick Baptiste (45) and the underrated Nate Pancel (42), and perhaps import Dominik Kahun will get a new lease on life in the playoffs after ending a drought in the regular-season finale. At the end of the day, the Wolves were counting on their acquisitions to lead them to at least the Eastern final, and that's only a modest goal.

Canadian NHL team prospects

Brendan Gaunce, Erie (No. 26 by Vancouver Canucks in 2012) — The forward had back-to-back two-goal outings to hit 30 for the year. Now Gaunce will try to help Erie go deeper than his 2013 Belleville team, which came up one win short of the OHL final.

Scott Kosmachuk, Guelph (No. 70 by Winnipeg Jets in '12) — Fortunately for Kosmachuk, he got his 100th point out of the way in the first minute of Guelph's finale on Saturday. The right wing was tossed later in the game after taking a cross-checking major, which would be subject to a league review. Overall, though, with 48 goals and 100 points, Kosmachuk was everything a contender could ask for in a first-line right wing. He was the only player to reach 95 points without playing in the Eastern Conference or while playing for Erie.

Connor Brown, Erie (No. 156 by Toronto Maple Leafs in '12) — Not too much need to get overly detailed when a right wing puts up 45 goals and 128 points, to win the scoring crown by 21 points over linemate and Vancouver Canucks signing Dane Fox.


Hot: Drummondville Voltigeurs The Volts' final week included two wins over Victoriaville, which it will face in a first round brimming with bad blood after the Tigres' Tommy Veilleux got a three-game suspension for a dirty check on Drummondville defender Sergei Boikov (who is questionable for the opener). The six-game streak to the finish was the best thing that Drummondville could have done for itself (obviously), since it earned a matchup with a 11th-seeded Victoriaville club very similar to it in style instead of having to handle the speed of 10th-seeded Rouyn-Noranda. Drummondville's 18-year-old goalie Louis-Philip Guindon is headed into the post-season on a high note, as well, having earned league goalie of the month honours.

The Voltigeurs deserve kudos for blossoming into a 90-point team despite an absence of star power, with Jérome Verrier (39 goals, 72 points) and Frédérick Gaudreau (32 and 71) being the club's lone top-25 scorers. They were 20th and 21st.

Not: Chicoutimi Saguenéens

One has to scan back two months to find the last time the Sags, who dropped all three of their final-week games, beat a team that is in the playoffs without requiring a shootout. It was in overtime. Over Shawinigan. Which took the last playoff spot in a league that only 'unvites' two teams from the dance. To be fair, leading scorer Laurent Dauphin last played on Feb. 23 before going down with an injury, plus the second half was supposed to be rough after Chicoutimi traded Montreal Canadiens prospect Charles Hudon to Baie-Comeau. This is a whole new depth of rough, though.

The upshot of the Sags, well, sagging to 13th overall and a possible quick exit vs. Rimouski is that it will make it all the more obvious to award the 2015 Memorial Cup host bid to the Quebec Remparts. The rich get richer.

Canadian NHL team prospects

Zach Fucale, Halifax (No. 36 by Montreal Canadiens in '13) — Fucale won the goals-against title at 2.26 with a .907 save percentage, six shutouts and credit for 36 wins (the latter tying for the most in the Q). The winningest 18-year-old goalie in the junior game will lead defending champion Halifax into the playoffs, starting with a series vs. Charlottetown. Fucale's already been credited with 26 career playoff wins; keep in mind he still has another year in junior ahead of him.

Vincent Dunn, Gatineau (No. 108 by Ottawa Senators in '13) — Perhaps it's an overread but there might have been a little drama playing out between Dunn and 'Piques coach-GM Benoit Groulx over the final homestand. Dunn scored four goals in a Friday rout of lowly Sherbrooke, but was one of the few top-end players dressed for a nothing game on Saturday vs. Rouyn-Noranda. (Montreal Canadiens pick Martin Reway and Calgary Flames first-rounder Émile Poirier were rested.) Dunn seemed to have a disinterested night, with a lot of half-efforts in puck battles. He did pop in the lone 'Piques goal to finish his 18-year-old season with 31 goals and 51 points in only 50 games.

Antoine Bibeau, Val-d'Or (No. 172 by Toronto Maple Leafs in '13) — Bibeau and the Foreurs wrested the No. 3 playoff seed and division title away from Blainville-Boisbriand over the past two weeks. The 19-year-old goalie, whom the Leafs still have until the end of the next season to offer a contract, has been in the winners' circle in 10 of his last 12 starts. Bibeau finished with a 3.17 average and .907 save percentage, good numbers for a goalie who switched teams at midseason and had a rough initial adjustment.


Hot: Everett Silvertips Everett went from having a tenuous hold on a sixth seed to nearly nabbing fourth thanks to ending with an 11-game point streak, as it set up its first-ever playoff matchup vs. the Seattle Thunderbirds. It also ended a very long road losing streak against Spokane in the process, so there's a lot going on here. Putting Edmonton Oilers third-rounder Jujhar Khaira (1G-6A in eight March games) the de facto No. 1 centre flanking overage Josh Winquist has been a masterstroke for the 'Tips, with the big centre creating for the 47-goal scorer. Everett's also been able to have a reasonable facsimile of three-line depth with 16-year-olds Patrick Bajkov and Matt Fonteyne chipping in down the stretch. The Silvertips' defensive depth, formed by Mirco Mueller, Matt Pufahl and Ben Betker, has also filled out well. Presumably, the big question is whether the Everett-Seattle survivor will have anything left in the tank for the second round.

Not: Kootenay Ice The show must go on, as the cliché goes. The Ice maintained their good results during the first full week of the deal of losing star winger Tim Bozon to neisseria meningitis. Last week, though, it lost three one-goal decisions to various Alberta teams. The 0-3-0-1 skid included a pair of setbacks vs. the Calgary Hitmen, which the Ice will now face instead of drawing the presumably more promising 4 vs. 5 series vs. the Medicine Hat Tigers. There's only so much that can be asked of a team that loses a frontline player, let alone one under such grim circumstances.

On the up and up, though, the small-market franchise is in the post-season for the 16th consecutive season, and did so with 18-year-olds as its primary scorers. Along with top draft prospect Sam Reinhart finishing with 35 goals and 102 points, wings Jaedon Descheneau (44 and 98) and Luke Philp (31 and 77) had big years. Defenceman Rinat Valiev, in his first season in North America, tied for the club lead in plus/minus despite missing a quarter of the schedule. Whether that adds up to Kootenay hanging in with the Hitmen remains to be seen.

Canadian NHL team prospects Nic Petan, Portland (No. 43 by Winnipeg Jets in '13) — The Dub's second-leading scorer finished with a five-game point streak, which cursorily, sounds like par for the course. But Portland was facing a string of teams (Vancouver, Tri-City and Seattle) which thrive on applying shutdown strategies. It simply wasn't the time nor place for Petan to go off in Petan-ian fashion, but he got the job done. Putting up 113 points in 63 games is also very, very special.

Eric Comrie, Tri-City (No. 59 by Winnipeg Jets in '12) — Pretty typical week for Comrie, who had a 46-of-49 night vs. Portland in a preview of what's to come in the first round of the playoffs. He also got his career-high fourth shutout in the closer vs. Spokane, to finish with a 2.57 average and .924 save percentage across 60 games.

Chris Driedger, Calgary (No. 76 by Ottawa Senators in '12) — The 19-year-old goalie has a 2.56 average and .923 save pct. this month, having helped the Hitmen win six of his seven starts.

Brett Kulak (No. 105 by Calgary Flames in '12) — Kulak, who was signed by the Flames on Tuesday, was already having a good stretch. The 19-year-old notched five helpers over the last three games to finish with 60 points, tied for eighth in the Dub's defenceman scoring race. That is no mean feat when one recalls how deep the past two drafts were with D-men from the WHL.

Ben Betker, Everett (No. 158 by Edmonton Oilers in '13) — The defenceman had a large hand in the 'Tips surge, counting six points and a plus-9 over eight games that Everett either won or was tied after 65 minutes. Betker's growth has also enabled his team to spread its three best defenders over three pairings.

Greg Chase, Calgary (No. 188 by Edmonton Oilers in '13) — Chase's four-point effort in the Hitmen's finale vs. Kootenay gave him a nice 35-goal, 85-point 18-year-old season.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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