The road is calling the Sudbury Wolves.
The team heads out for a three-game road trip over the course of four days and faces a pair of Central Division rivals in North Bay (Thursday) and Niagara (Saturday) followed by a Sunday match against Kitchener.
The game against North Bay will be the main attraction for the weekend action as it will be a battle for first place in the Central Division. Two points separate the teams after 50 games. (North Bay has played 51.)
Sudbury holds the lead with 62 points to 60.
The Wolves are aware they will be in for a gruelling test against the Battalion on North Bay's home ice.
“North Bay has been a hot team,” Head Coach Paul Fixter said. “They just beat a really good Sault Ste. Marie club on Sunday. It will be a great challenge for us to try and stay ahead of North Bay.”
The Wolves endured two losses over the weekend on home ice — 3-0 to the Soo on Sunday and 3-2 to London on Friday. Players and coaches echoed one another in saying they felt the effort was there, but the results were not.
The Wolves will have to right the ship on the road and offence is the main issue. The power play struggled mightily over the weekend games and the scoring weapons went totally silent against Sault Ste. Marie.
“We have a couple of areas that are concerning,” Fixter said. “Our offensive production has to get going. Our power play has to take advantage of the opportunities we are given.
“Look at the 5-on-3 power play against the Soo. We didn’t deliver. We also gave up short-handed goals against London. That is very concerning.
“We have some guys who are in mini slumps and they have to find their offensive game again — guys we depend on. We need them scoring. We have preached defence. We still need our offence. We want both.”
Sudbury is looking to improve their road record, which stands at 9-10-3-3. It will come down to overcoming the elements of the road, such as dealing with hostile crowds, and matching the intensity of the opposition.
“There is always pressure on the road. It is how the players deal with it,” Fixter said.
The Wolves hope forward and energetic catalyst Nicholas Baptiste will be in the lineup. The second-leading scorer on the team (30 goals and 63 points in 49 games) left the game against London after the first period after taking a hard hit. Baptiste didn’t play Saturday versus the Soo. He was listed as day-to-day.
Grinders Ray Huether and Danny Desrochers were elevated to the second and first lines last weekend against Sault Ste. Marie. The two warriors have seen more ice time in the past few weeks. They could see more.
“They both play hard and bring a lot to the line-up,” Fixter said. They have deserved the additional minutes they are getting.”
Rookie David Zeppieri has 27 games under his belt. He makes the most of his playing time and is learning everything he can from veteran players such as captain Kevin Raine, Nathan Pancel, Connor Crisp and others.
“It’s been a good learning experience for me,” Zeppieri said. “Sometimes I have to sit out and it is part of the process. I’ve been taken under the wing by a lot of the veterans. I have learned to work hard in practice and after practice and games from them. They have shown me the type of passion and heart it takes to be at this level.”
Battalion, IceDogs and Rangers
A surging Central Division rival is going to be the big game this week for the travelling Sudbury Wolves. The Wolves play the North Bay Battalion on Thursday at 7 p.m. followed by games against another division rival in Niagara IceDogs on Saturday night at 7 p.m. and a game versus the Kitchener Rangers Sunday at 6 p.m. Here’s a quick look at what the competition has been up to. Stats are as of Tuesday morning press deadline.
The Battalion have been moving up the standings and are now within striking distance of taking over first place in the Central Division from the Wolves. North Bay has been tough to beat over the past two months and they have forged a 7-2-0-1 record in their last 10 games. They are also on a modest two-game winning streak. This surge has put North Bay squarely on the heels of the Wolves as two points separate the two clubs for the fight for first in the Central Division. This season’s version of the Battalion are a classic Stan Butler (head coach) team — disciplined and relentless. The Battalion are the least penalized team in the Eastern Conference and feature the second lowest goals against in the conference. These two key elements makes them hard to beat — the Battalion don’t beat themselves. North Bay defends their home rink with authority, going 14-7-1-2. Big and rugged veteran forward Ben Thomson has been Mr. Everything for the Battalion since coming over in an early season trade with Kitchener. Thomson enjoyed a strong January, recording 10 goals and 15 points in 12 games. He has 25 points in 26 games with North Bay after starting with six points in 12 games with Kitchener. Thomson has gone to another level while in North Bay.
The IceDogs are fighting for their playoff lives, holding on to a thread for the eighth and final post-season spot in the Eastern Conference. Niagara went 17-27-2-5 in its first 51 games. They hold a slim lead over ninth place Ottawa. Expect nothing but the best out of the IceDogs as they try and make a wide void between themselves and Ottawa. The one-two punch of forwards Carter Verhaeghe (68 points in 48 games) and Brendan Perlini (61 points in 46 games) gives the opposition fits with their mix of skill, scoring and craftiness. The IceDogs went 10-11-1-1 in their first 23 home games.
The Rangers are rebuilding this season after swinging major deals last year to try and win the league championship. It doesn’t mean any team can take the Rangers lightly. Kitchener features former Wolves forward Dominik Kubalik, who was traded for Radek Faksa at the trade deadline in early January. Kubalik had one goal in his first nine games with Kitchener. The future of the Rangers lies in rookie forward Nick Magyar, who has racked up 14 goals and 36 points in his first 49 games. The American has bona fide skill and gives the Rangers plenty of hope for the next two seasons.