The Fort Frances Lakers haven’t made it tough enough on their opponents in many of their games this season–and that’s something that will have to change with the SIJHL playoffs just a few months away.
Despite a solid effort in thumping the last-place Minnesota Iron Rangers by an 8-1 margin here Friday night, the fifth-place Lakers (12-20-1-1) didn’t show that same effort in a 5-2 loss to the visiting Thief River Falls Norskies the following night.
Lakers’ head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan is hopeful his squad will adopt a playoff mentality moving forward this week as they hit the road to face the third-place Norskies (19-12-3-1) tonight before ending the week with a home-and-home series against the third-place Dryden GM Ice Dogs (17-13-3-1).
Fort Frances will welcome the Ice Dogs on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena before the Ice Dogs play host the following night.
“To see them [the Norskies] again Wednesday, that’s a big game,” Strachan said after Saturday night’s loss.
“And we’ve been talking about games against Thief River and Dryden as needing to have a playoff mentality, and them being someone that we’re going to see in the first round [of the playoffs],” he noted.
“We need to find a way amongst our group of guys that we gotta get to that level of how it’s gonna be in the playoffs and start performing now, carrying ourselves down the stretch here,” Strachan stressed.
“And that once Game 1 comes, we’re ready for it in mid-March.
“We’ll move past tonight and forget about, and then come on Monday [at practice] and work hard,” he added.
It was all Norskies in the opening 20 minutes Saturday night as they jumped out to a 3-0 lead.
After the Lakers took a bench minor penalty, Alec Severson opened the scoring on the ensuing man advantage 13:04 into the first period when he buried the rebound of Jake Eischen’s point blast.
Brett Piper then struck with back-to-back tallies less than three minutes apart to put the visitors up by three.
“Maybe the turning point of the game was our bench penalty and that’s on me,” Strachan said.
“I should have controlled my emotions at that time.
“They get up 1-0 and it kind of deflated us a bit, and from there on in we didn’t have the compete we needed,” he conceded.
“We didn’t really play to the keys of the game that we had,” Strachan noted. “It was just a spiral effect throughout the rest of the hockey game.”
Tyler Johnson staked the visitors’ to a commanding four-goal cushion just 35 seconds into the second when he burst down the ice on a short-handed breakaway before sniping one past Lakers’ goalie Jacob Gnidziejko.
Isaac Baron finally got the Lakers on the board at 5:11 when he took Brett Hahkala’s pass from the corner and snapped it by Norskies’ goalie Bailey Schmitz to trim it to 4-1.
But Piper completed his hat trick at 11:46 after the Lakers had turned the puck over in the neutral zone.
Blake Nelson skated the puck up the ice before dishing it off to Piper, who made no mistake in firing it past Gnidziejko to make it 5-1.
Hahkala got one back for the Lakers late in the third during a two-man advantage but that’s as close as the hosts would get.
Schmitz made 23 saves to earn the win while Gnidziejko faced 33 attempts in taking the loss.
“I think if you look at a positive, we did have a fairly good start,” Strachan reasoned.
“But I think how we need to reflect is the last couple of times we’ve played against Thief River, we haven’t made it hard enough for them,” he admitted.
“They’re fast, they’re skilled, and you gotta take them out of their comfort zone in order to have success and we haven’t done that consistently.”
On Friday night, Nick Hahkala’s first SIJHL hat trick helped pace the Lakers to a convincing win over the Iron Rangers.
After some good work in front of the Iron Rangers’ net by Jakob Ruck and Kendyn Faragher, Hahkala opened the scoring 12:47 into the first period when he buried the loose puck.
Baron doubled the lead 3:42 into the second when he burst down the ice and snapped one “five hole” through Iron Rangers’ goalie Nick Corneliusen.
Hahkala then tallied back-to-back markers before the frame hit the 10-minute mark to make it 4-0.
Hahkala’s brother, Brett, then found some room before snapping a shot “five hole” to stake the Lakers to a commanding 5-0 lead 3:28 into the third.
Then after Nick Hahkala completed his hat trick, Garrett Wojcicki took advantage of some sloppy Lakers’ coverage in front of their own net before firing it past Gnidziejko to trim it to 6-1.
“Feels good playing with different guys, and we seem to know where each other are all time and we have good chemistry,” Nick Hahkala said after Friday’s win.
“We’re good buddies on and off the ice, it kind of just comes naturally when we step onto the ice,” he noted.
“It’s a good feeling.”
Gnidziejko was replaced in net shortly after by affiliate goalie Jag Arena, who played the final 9:46 of regulation.
Kirk Coppock then was Johnny-on-the-spot as he chipped the rebound of Jaedin Ness’ shot over Corneliusen’s pad at 10:14 before Ness capped the scoring after deflecting a pass home less than a minute later.
Gnidziejko stopped 13 of the 14 shots he faced to record the win while Arena handled all six attempts he saw in his short SIJHL debut.
Corneliusen made 43 stops in a losing cause.
“We needed this game for our confidence,” Strachan said of Friday’s win.
“Obviously it was a much-needed two points.
“I like that we came out hungry in the first period, and even though the score was 1-0 after the first, we controlled the play, carried the play, created a lot of opportunities, and were hungry forcing turnovers to create those opportunities,” he noted.
“It was good to see.
“Even our last two games, I thought we played well and lost in overtime and a shootout and just couldn’t get it done,” Strachan added.
“But tonight [Friday], it was a big win for us.”