Semi-final series should be tight

As Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan rightly put this week, everything that has happened during the regular season between the Fort Frances Lakers and Dryden Ice Dogs has to be put in the rearview mirror.
Yes, the Lakers did win the season series over their long-time rivals by a 9-6 margin, which included victories in their last seven head-to-head meetings.
But you can throw all of those stats into the wastepaper basket because as the SIJHL semi-finals get underway here tomorrow—all that matters is winning four out of seven games.
While the regular-season stats pretty much have become null and void, history shows the Lakers and Ice Dogs have become quite familiar at this stage of the season.
Other than last year’s clean sweep by the Lakers in the semi-finals, the previous two semi-final encounters between the two squads have been six-game affairs, with the Ice Dogs coming out on top in both 2010 and 2011.
And barring anything truly out of the ordinary, all signs are pointing to another tightly-contested battle.
Part of that comes from the fact both teams are nearly evenly-matched in all aspects of the ice. Up front, each team has a talented veteran marksman who is in the top five in league scoring, with the Lakers being led by 71-point man Jordan Christianson while the Ice Dogs counter with Chris Belhumeur (66 points).
But if the big guns aren’t firing, both teams have a number of forwards on all four lines who can contribute when need be, which is especially important at this time of the year.
On the blueline, both teams have nice puck handlers and body bruisers who can make an impact in more ways than one. Plus, they also can find the back of the net when need be, with Dryden’s Len Pelletier and Fort Frances’ Jon Carlson among those who can fire a heavy point shot.
Arguably the biggest factor when the playoffs roll around, however, is the play of a team’s goaltender—and both the Ice Dogs and Lakers have two talented ones.
Since joining the team in January, Talor Joseph has been rock solid for the Lakers, winning his first 10 decisions and helping his team to a stellar run to second place in the standings.
At the other end of the rink, Dryden’s Eric Szymczyk has been far better than his 19-20-0-1 record would indicate as he’s frustrated shooters on numerous occasions this season.
So with both teams seemingly even, what is going to be the biggest difference in this series? For me, it comes to down to home-ice advantage, which belongs to the Lakers.
Prior to a pair of losses to the Thunder Bay North Stars here two weeks ago, the Ice For Kids Arena had become a fortress for the Lakers as they rattled off win after win.
To go along with that, the home crowd should be in strong voice here tomorrow and Friday as this marks the first time in quite a while that the Lakers have been in game that has meant a lot since they wrapped up the second seed long ago.
Plus, if the series happens to go a Game 7, it would take place here on Tuesday, April 2, which is quite nice to have in your back pocket.
Those Lakers who were a part of last year’s runner-up squad only have to look back to last season, when they fell to the then-Wisconsin Wilderness in the seventh and deciding game of the SIJHL final in Spooner, Wis.
Both the Lakers and Ice Dogs should put on one heck of a battle in the coming days. And when the dust settles, I’m predicting a Lakers victory in six games.
That should set the stage—unless the Earth flies completely off its axis in the next week and a massive upset occurs in the other semi-final series—for a championship rematch against the Wilderness that many Lakers’ fans have been waiting 12 months for.

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