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Published December 19, 2022

Strong pre-holiday finish shows Colts 'right there' with contenders

The Colts stretched their run of games with at least a point to eight

It wasn't exactly how the Barrie Colts wanted to wrap up their pre-Christmas schedule Sunday afternoon, but head coach Marty Williamson believes his team can feel pretty good as they head into the break.

The Colts stretched their run of games with at least a point to eight after scoring twice late in the third period to force overtime in an eventual 3-2 loss to the Battalion at North Bay Memorial Gardens.

Evan Vierling, shorthanded, and Cooper Matthews scored 1:13 apart in the final four minutes to draw Barrie (15-9-4-2) even, but Kyle Jackson stepped to the centre of the high slot and wired the game winner over the left pad of Ben West just 1:21 into the extra frame.

After wins over the Sudbury Wolves and Guelph Storm, the Colts put a bow on a big week by grabbing five out of six points in home-and-home weekend against a Battalion team with the second most points in the OHL this season.

"It just shows you that we're right there with everyone in the league," said veteran centre Jacob Frasca.

Williamson thought his club was a little timid in the first, but played a "heck of a second" period despite the Battalion getting the lone goal off a fortunate bounce.

Owen Van Steensel stepped outside his own blueline and through the puck down into the Colts corner where it bounced back in front of the net.

West tried to poke the puck away, but it instead went to Ethan Procyszyn who deposited it into the open cage.

"I thought we deserved a lot better fate in the second period," said Williamson. "It was nice to see those two goals in the third to give us a shot."

Josh Bloom, with his 12th in 15 games since being acquired from Saginaw, also scored for the Battalion (22-9-0-1), which leads Barrie by nine points atop the Central Division standings.

"I'm real proud of the guys," said Williamson. "That's five-out-of-six points on the weekend and (two more) from the Sudbury game on Tuesday. It's been a good little run for us."

One of the conference favourites heading into the year, the Colts didn't get off to the start they expected. The Los Angeles Kings hung on to captain Brandt Clarke and former first-round pick Hunter Haight asked to be traded.

"We really anticipated starting our season with Brandt and we thought we would get our blue line in order and we kind of didn't," he said.

Williamson, though, is encouraged by what he's seen over the last few weeks.

"We've been pretty demanding on (young defenceman) Beau Akey and I thought he's responded and has been fantastic," he said. "I think some of our younger players are starting to gel. (Beau) Jelsma looks extremely comfortable. Hunter Haight, obviously, was an issue for us and I thought we've handled everything extremely well.

"With the second half, again, there's stages to this league. There's the first half, then the second half and then the playoffs. We know this is another step we have to take and we want to be competitive."

Frasca says while the team's improved defensive play and commitment to structure and has helped turn things around, he believes the biggest change has come in the dressing room.

"Me personally, I think the biggest difference is just the culture in the room," said Frasca, who has been held off the scoresheet just twice in the last seven games. "We're joking around with each other and we just have this winning attitude. After games, we're all on the bike, stretching.

"Leadership has done a good job of leading these young guys. Everyone feels like they can make an impact on the game. I feel like we're playing as a group and we're putting our egos aside and just doing our jobs, and it's been successful."

One of the strengths throughout the first half has been the play of goaltenders Anson Thornton, Ben West and Sam Hillebrandt, who got a win in his OHL debut Friday night in Guelph.

That their teammates have played a more consistent game of late in front of them has helped.

"The main thing now is our approach to games is much stronger and we're starting to understand what works for us," said Williamson.

The unofficial second half begins Friday, Dec. 30 in Owen Sound and shortly after that is the OHL Trade Deadline on Jan. 10.

Picking up where they left off before the holiday break could make the Colts a buyer come deadline. More so if the Kings, as many expect, return Clarke to Barrie after the world junior hockey championships wrap up in early January.

"I talk to Clarkie every day and it'd be great to have him," said Frasca.

For the Colts, all they can do is wait and see.

"We seem to be getting a slightly positive vibe that Brandt could be back with us, but those are the kind of things that are out of our control," said Williamson. (Kings general manager) Rob Blake has been extremely co-operative and informative when he talks to us and they obviously have decisions to make at the pro level.

"We know where Brandt wants to be, but I also think Brandt's got a great attitude and he's talked to some of our guys and he doesn't want to be anywhere but Barrie if it can't be LA."

Williamson knows if the Colts are to make some noise down the stretch, there are various areas of the game they have to get better at.

"I don't think our scoring has hit the peak yet," he said. "We saw a little bit today just getting a little more vision, a little more composure from our guys and I think we can score a bit more, which I'm sure would be a big plus for us."

ICE CHIPS: Frasca, who missed most of last season with various injuries, has already surpassed his OHL scoring highs with 32 points this season. "I'm just having fun," he said. "I'm trusting my instincts." Frasca said he and family members will head to Toronto on Tuesday to watch older brother Jordan take the ice with Wilkes-Barrie/Scranton Penguins against the Marlies in an AHL contest. As for Christmas dinner this year, no surprise what the conversation around the table will be between he and his four hockey-playing siblings. "They'll be lots of hockey and talk of hockey. That's all it is, is hockey, hockey, hockey at the Frasca house. But it's fun." . . . Vierling has now scored in six (7G) straight games. . . Akey now has assists in seven of his last eight games (10A). . . Owen Sound outshot Barrie 52-36. . . The Colts went scoreless on six power-play chances, while North was 0-for-2. . . Barrie's next home game is the traditional New Year's Eve contest. This year they host Guelph.

Terry Wilson/OHL Images

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