Lakers close to sealing top spot
With only one game to occupy their week, the Fort Frances Lakers decided two points were better than none.
Mason Meyer had a goal and two assists, and Devin Tappenden made 16 saves, as the Lakers (41-6-2-2) doubled the Dryden Ice Dogs (20-27-5) by a 4-2 margin last Tuesday at the Couchiching Arena.
Dane Feeney and Cody Kaus replied for Dryden, who got 33 saves from Joakim Jutras in a losing effort.
“We came out all right,” said Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan, whose team retained its No. 5 spot in the latest Canadian Junior ‘A’ Hockey League top 20 rankings.
“But I thought in the latter half of the first, we quit skating and moving the puck and had a few defensive breakdowns that carried over into the second,” he noted.
“In the third, we were able to capitalize on a power-play situation to get a big two points.”
Kevin Kurm returned to the Lakers’ lineup against Dryden after being out since Feb. 1 with a back injury and assisted on Lipinski’s first-period marker.
In earning their fourth-straight win, the Lakers now are only one point away from clinching top spot in the SIJHL.
The second-place Thunder Bay North Stars (36-10-1-4) now have made up all their games in hand on the Lakers and still trail Fort Frances by nine points with five games left for each squad entering last night’s contest between the Lakers and visiting Wisconsin Wilderness (5-46).
That means the Lakers need only one win, an overtime or shootout loss, or one loss by the Stars to end any Thunder Bay thoughts of catching them.
“We’ve got to keep our intensity where it is,” stressed Lakers’ defenceman Riley Daly.
“You can’t take anyone lightly in this league,” he noted. “They can surprise you at any time.”
The Lakers head to Ear Falls tonight to take on the Miners in the first of a home-and-home series which concludes Friday at the Ice For Kids Arena.
The squad then will finish the regular season with a home-and-home confrontation against the Wilderness, travelling to Wisconsin on Monday before hosting the return game March 8.
In related news, the SIJHL released its playoff schedule Monday, with all six teams making the post-season.
With Thunder Bay needing only a win or a Minnesota Iron Rangers’ loss in regulation time to nail down second place, a first-round battle between the Lakers and North Stars seems inevitable.
The two squads would play a two-game, total-goals series sometime in the first half of March, with the league champ getting to decide whether they want to host the first or second game.
Should the two teams be tied in goals after regulation and overtime of the second game, a shootout would be used to decide the winner.
The winner of that mini-series then would get its choice of the two quarter-final survivors.
That could prove a huge advantage for the semi-finals.
Third-place Minnesota (31-14-1-5) would appear likely to get through a first-round best-of-seven showdown against the last-place Wilderness, with Dryden and the expansion English River Miners (20-26-4) duelling in the other quarter-final.
Regular-season records would indicate avoiding the Iron Rangers until the Bill Salonen Cup final would be in the best interest of both the Lakers and North Stars, making their first-round meeting significant in meaning.
The semi-finals are scheduled for March 27-April 9 while the final series is slated for April 10-23.
The SIJHL champion then advances to the Dudley-Hewitt Cup in Wellington from April 29-May 3, which also will feature the host Dukes as well as the champions of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League and the Ontario Junior Hockey League.
The Dudley-Hewitt Cup winner then will head to Vernon, B.C. for the RBC Cup from May 10-18.