With the Christmas break behind them, the Barrie Colts are hoping for a fresh start as they kick off the second-half of their OHL regular season schedule tonight (Dec. 28) on the road against the Kitchener Rangers.
Barrie limped into the Holiday Break with only a win in its last seven games, finishing the first half with back-to-back losses to North Bay and allowing the Battalion to move within a point of them for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
While the recent trade of captain Justin Murray to the Saginaw Spirit signals a team that is looking to the future as the Jan. 10 OHL trade deadline approaches, Lucas Chiodo and his Barrie teammates still believe they can make some noise down the stretch and into the playoffs.
“I think we got the group,” said the overage forward, who leads the Colts in scoring with 18 goals and 28 assists for 46 points in 33 games. “We may not be the most skilled team, but if we keep working hard and come together in the second half I really think we can have a good playoff push.”
For that to happen and for the Colts to get back on track and move up in the Eastern Conference standings, Dale Hawerchuk believes goaltending will be a key. He’s hoping one of Kai Edmonds, Russian import Maxsim Zhukov or rookie Jet Greaves grabs the reins in the crease.
“I don’t think it’s been too bad,” the Colts head coach said of the team’s first half. “We’ve had three goaltenders for a reason. One hasn’t taken charge, maybe for little spurts and that’s difficult. If you’re going to be successful, you got to get quality saves all the time.”
Especially when they’re shorthanded, where the Colts have sunk to 14 overall in penalty killing (77.5%).
“Just like our penalty kill is down,” Hawerchuck continued. “Your best penalty killer is your goalie and you got to get those saves. I think there’s been some nights where we played pretty good and then all of a sudden it just caved in.
“When you start getting to these levels, you can’t gift teams goals. You got to make them earn it from 200-feet.”
The Colts struggles have also come at the other end of the ice. While Barrie was among the OHL’s highest scoring teams early on in the season, they have fallen to ninth overall, with 121 goals in 33 games.
In the last seven games, the Colts were held to a single goal four times and have just 15 goals during the rough offensive stretch.
“It’s not for a lack of chances,” Hawerchuk said pointing to forward Jacob Tortora as an example. “I look at Tortora and he gets about six or seven good ones a night. I’d be worried if the chances aren’t there.”
The hope is players like Jaden Peca and Jason Willms can step up their production, while the team also receives more scoring help from the bottom six up front.
Peca had 16 goals in a breakout season last year, but has found the net just six times in 33 games, while Willms has scored nine times after a career high 27 goals a year ago.
“Guys have to realize, even as they get older, you still have to work at it just as hard,” Hawerchuk said. “It’s not going to come easier just because you’re older. It might come a little easier in the sense that you’ve really put the work in and you’re ready to go.
“Then confidence plays a big part of that too. A guy like Peca, he needs to be the hardest working guy on the ice every night. That’s how he made the team and that’s how he had success last year, and he’s slowly getting back to that.”
The good thing, Chiodo says, is that the scoring chances are there.
“I think we just have to simplify things here,” he said. “Get pucks deep and try to turn it over down low and create chances. If we keep playing like we have, I’m real confident we can turn things around.”
Hawerchuk also believes if his club keeps producing those offensive chances, things will turn around and the Colts can perhaps get back to winning hockey in the second half of the season.
“That’s our focus, to be consistent every night and playing the way we can,” the Colts head coach said. “If we generate that many chances every night, we’re going to win the majority.”
ICE CHIPS: The Colts will face North Bay for the third time in the last four games when they host their division rivals on Saturday night (Dec. 29) at the Barrie Molson Centre. Game time is 7:30 p.m. . . Barrie’s annual New Year’s Eve game will see the Owen Sound Attack come into town. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
PHOTO: The Barrie Colts had their share of offensive struggles as they headed into the Christmas break. They’ll look to turn things around when they kick off the second half of OHL season against the Rangers, Dec. 28, in Kitchener. TERRY WILSON/OHL IMAGES