Akil Thomas leads Niagara is must-win game with five points
Niagara IceDogs forward Kirill Maksimov, No. 13, beats North Bay Battalion goaltender Brent Moran on the power play in Ontario Hockey League action Sunday afternoon at Meridan Centre in St. Catharines. COLIN DEWAR/Special to Postmedia Network
The Niagara IceDogs made a statement Sunday and punctuated the assertion that there’s plenty of bite backing up their bark with five exclamation points.
That’s how many insurance goals they scored in a 7-1 victory over the visiting North Bay Battalion that moved them four points ahead of North Bay, 23-36-4-2, in the four-team race for the final three playoff berths in the Ontario Hockey League’s Eastern Conference.
With three games remaining in their regular season, the IceDogs, currently in seventh place with a 23-32-6-4 record, moved one point ahead of the Sudbury Wolves, 24-33-7-0, and two back of the Ottawa 67’s, 25-32-7-1. Only Sudbury has a game in hand.
Niagara’s second impressive performance on home ice in as many games, coupled with a 6-0 North Bay loss the night before to the worst team in the league, turned the IceDogs into one of the teams being chased rather than one doing the chasing.
Neither Niagara IceDogs head coach Dave Bell nor Akil Thomas, the game’s first star with a goal and four assists, however, are concerned having some breathing room will shift the team’s focus away from the goal of a making the playoffs heading into the final week of the season.
“Our approach is we’ve never looked behind. In a game, we never look behind; in the standings, we’re always trying to catch the team in front of us,” Bell said. “I don’t care who’s behind us, I’m always trying to catch the team ahead of us.
“The guys behind us can do what they can do. As long as we keep winning our games and chasing the team in front of us, the teams behind us can’t catch us.”
Thomas said the IceDogs have had too much experience trailing in the standings this season to allow them take their foot off the gas at this point in their development as a team.
“Mindset-wise no just because we’ve been on the other end of things the last couple of games,” he said. “We’re just going to come out the same way we came out today.
“We know we can’t mess around and let a point get taken away from us. We need every point we can get, and the boys are just focused on winning every game from now on.”
Thomas credited the time of the game — a 2 p.m. faceoff, rather than the usual 7 p.m. — for helping the IceDogs in a must-win game that featured a playoff feel. He said it feels different for him coming to the rink early.
“It kind of feels like we’re about to practise,” he said. “Maybe the guys are a little looser than usual, which I guess turned out to be a good thing.”
The IceDogs took Saturday off after beating the Hamilton Bulldogs 3-2 in a shootout the night before, but the break from practice didn’t affect them when they took the ice against North Bay.
“We prepared for it like it was our biggest game of the year,” Bell said. “Credit to the guys, they came in focused. Obviously, we did the right thing yesterday with rest.
“I liked their focus and their effort.”
Niagara forward Johnny Corneil said not giving the Battalion much of an opportunity to regroup after their disappointing loss Saturday night in Barrie was part of the game plan.
“We knew they got spanked in Barrie, so we wanted to come out hard,” he said after finding the back of the net twice to improve his team scoring lead to 30 goals.
Former IceDogs netminder Brent Moran faced sustained pressure early in the game, and that effort on the part of the host team was rewarded 1:43 into the first period with Johnny Corneil’s team-high 29th goal of the season.
Kirill Maksimov was Johnny-on-the-spot for Niagara in front of the open net tapping in a cross-crease pass to put the hosts up 2-0.
Corneil answered a one-timer from Brett Hargrave’that beat Stephen Dhillon glove side and put North Bay on the scoreboard with his second goal of the afternoon.
Fans were still returning to their seats when Kyle Langdon, on a breakaway from the far blue-line with the IceDogs playing shorthanded, faked Moran out of position and scored in the backhand.
That wasn’t the only time in the second period that the Battlion seemed inappropriately named. Their defence also appeared to be AWOL when Maksimov, left all alone in front of Moran for a tap-in on the power play, and Akil Thomas, given plenty of time and space to beat Moran stick side from just below the faceoff circle, put the IceDogs a 6-1 cushion after two periods of play.
Maksimov’s second goal of the game, also on the power play, was his eighth in the past four games. He also scored in the shootout in Friday’s victory over the Owen Sound Attack.
It was the Battlion’s second loss in less than 24 hours. North Bay squandered a chance to keep pace with Niagara in the playoff race when they dropped a 6-0 decision on the road Saturday night to the worst team in the league, the Barrie Colts.
The Battalion came into St. Catharines for the final meeting of the season series leading the IceDogs 3-2-0-1, six points to five, in head-to-head play. Niagara earned a consolation point in a 6-5 shootout loss Nov. 4 at Meridian Centre.
’Dog Biscuits: Singing O Canada was Monument Choir, which is made up of people with disabilities … Billet families were presented with commemorative photos of their players in a red carpet on-ice ceremony before the game, as were the parents of the four players who live at home. This season four billets opened their homes to two players each.
IceDogs 7, Battalion 1
Postmedia Network star of the game: Niagara forward Akil Thomas, with one goal and four assists
Scoring for North Bay Battalion: Brett Hargrave (14) . Scoring for Niagara IceDogs: Johnny Corneil (29), (30), Kirill Maksimov (19) PP (20) PP, Kyle Langdon (12) SH, Akil Thomas (21)
Goaltending, shots-saves: North Bay, Brent Moran, 23-17; Julian Sime, 13-12; Niagara, Stephen Dhillon, 34-33.
Power play, goals-chances: North Bay, 0-for-3; Niagara, 2-3.
Penalties, in minutes: North Bay, 18; Niagara, 18.
Attendance at Meridian Centre: 5,300, sellout.
Next games for Niagara: Thursday, home to Mississauga Steelheads, 7 p.m.; Saturday, home to Sudbury Wolves, 7 p.m.