Lakers’ season at a crossroads

With the SIJHL season inching towards its Christmas break, the question that has been looming over the Fort Frances Lakers for the last few weeks needs to be asked.
Where exactly is this team going in its quest to qualify for the Dudley Hewitt Cup in Thunder Bay this coming spring?
After starting the season with a 13-1-2 record, and trading top spot in the league with the defending champion Wisconsin Wilderness on a regular basis, the Lakers have gone 6-7-2 since Nov. 1. Not only have they lost ground to the Wilderness in the standings, but also have allowed the Thunder Bay North Stars to creep within striking distance.
Now the Lakers are one of the top teams in the league for a reason. They have a very talented roster, and they are the highest-scoring team in the SIJHL with 137 goals so far.
But there have been problems with the team during its recent slump that seem to be repeating themselves on a regular basis.
One thing that head coach Wayne Strachan has not been pleased with all season has been the team’s defensive, with the Lakers giving up 99 goals to date—fourth most in the seven-team loop.
He has made moves to try and rectify that over the last couple of weeks, with defencemen Steve Terry and Brandon Fehd being brought in and blueliners Jon Stephansson and Mike Riffel leaving town. And a 3-2 shootout loss to the Wisconsin Wilderness on Dec. 2 made it seem that things had been shored up.
However, after surrendering a combined 11 goals in their weekend losses to the Sioux Lookout Flyers and Dryden Ice Dogs, those questions have come back to their forefront once again.
Strachan also expressed his disappointment with how the team’s two goalies, Tyler Ampe and Tanner Hamilton, played in the losses to Sioux Lookout and Dryden, and said both needed to play a lot better than they have been of late.
Along with that, Strachan also said the play of the goalies lately “leaves a big question for us as to if we should be looking for a goalie who can lead our team.”
While a team GAA of 3.19 is third-best in the league, and Ampe and Hamilton have been putting up respectable numbers compared to most netminders in the SIJHL, the fact the Wilderness traded away Zane Sampson, who was 8-2-1 and had a 1.99 GAA, should prove that no one is safe.
Besides those things, though, the biggest issue Strachan has had over the last few weeks has been a lack of effort from his squad, which is something he’s repeated on numerous occasions.
In fact, during the club’s hot start, Strachan had mentioned following a loss that he felt his team could be undefeated if they fixed up their issues with their effort and compete level.
However, in this recent slide, those issues have seemed to crop up yet again.
There were times during the Lakers’ hot start where they came back on numerous occasions in the third period, essentially snatching victories from the jaws of defeat.
But lately the opposite has happened, with the Lakers collapsing late in losses to Dryden and Wisconsin two weeks ago on home ice. And in games where they’ve fallen behind early, there hasn’t been the same feeling that the team can come back.
Obviously, there’s a long way to go in the regular season before the playoffs get underway. And with the CJHL trade deadline still a month away, the squad could be different in both how it plays and who is on the roster over the next few weeks.
However, with another SIJHL team joining the host Thunder Bay North Stars at this spring’s Dudley Hewitt Cup, the Lakers will need to turn things around quickly and return to their solid start in the opening few weeks of the season if they want to achieve their main goal.
Because if this slide continues, the gap between them and the Wilderness only is going to become wider and wider.

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