Calling for Lakers in seven

After the summer workouts, the training camps, the exhibition contests, the regular-season affairs, and the playoff rounds, here we are.
This Sunday night in Spooner, the SIJHL season will begin its final chapter as the best-of-seven series to determine this year’s Bill Salonen Cup champ gets underway between the Wisconsin Wilderness and Fort Frances Lakers.
With all due respect to the five other teams that failed to make it to the final, this is the match-up everyone has been waiting for since the season started back in September.
From the get-go, these two clubs have been the best in the league. And given the fact they played each other in the “showdown” series earlier this month, it’s only fitting they now will have a seven-game affair to determine the SIJHL champ.
Although the season series between the two squads was 7-2 in favour of the top-seeded Wilderness, the fact the Lakers were able to beat their arch-nemesis in the aforementioned “showdown” series helps a ton in the old momentum category heading into the final.
On paper, the teams are nearly even in their stats so far in the post-season, with both carrying 6-2 records. The gap also is narrow in goals for (34 to 30 in favour of the Wilderness) and goals against (again going in Wisconsin’s favour, 18 to 22).
During the regular season, both sides were the best in total goals and their offences have shown no signs of slowing down up to this point.
Lakers’ forward Byron Katapaytuk, the SIJHL player-of-the-year winner, is leading the league in points in the playoffs so far with 12 while Wilderness sniper Mike Dietrich sits just two points back.
Both defences also have been stout in the post-season, which is something that will be key for the final with both offences flying towards the goals.
But given the fact both teams have played each other as much as they have this season, the games should be very tight affairs throughout the series, with very little chances of the contests turning into fire-wagon hockey from the 1980s.
In goal, the Lakers’ Tyler Ampe and Wisconsin’s Tanner Milliron have been outstanding yet again, with Ampe making numerous big saves for his team at home and on the road during the semi-final sweep of the Dryden Ice Dogs last week.
Milliron, meanwhile, who was named the SIJHL’s top goalie nearly a month ago, has been lights out once again in the post-season with a 1.90 goals against average. He also is the only netminder to earn a shutout in the playoffs so far with a 26-save performance in a 5-0 win over the Thunder Bay North Stars in Game 2 of their semi-final series.
So with two teams being so evenly matched, what will be the difference? As it often is at this time of year, it probably will be home-ice advantage.
Counting the regular season, Wisconsin is a perfect 32-0 at the Northwest Sports Complex, which is nothing short of outstanding and amazing.
The Lakers, however, are no slouches at home, either. They are 4-0 so far in the playoffs at the Ice for Kids Arena, and have won their last eight games there.
With all that said, it’s time for me to make a prediction on who will end up representing the SIJHL at the Dudley Hewitt Cup in Thunder Bay in a couple of weeks.
If you had asked me a couple of months ago who I thought would win a seven-game affair between the two squads, I probably would have said the Wilderness would repeat as league champs with relative ease.
However, the Lakers really have improved over the latter stages of the season and have continued that into the playoffs, with impressive showings against both the Wilderness and the Ice Dogs.
Yes, the Lakers have yet to solve the Wilderness in Spooner, but they have been close quite a few times in becoming the first team to knock them off at home. And I have a feeling the law of averages finally might turn out in the favour.
My prediction is that the Lakers will win it in seven games. But no matter how it plays out, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.

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