By Dan Falloon, Staff writer
There was no sign anything special was going to happen for the Fort Frances Lakers on Friday night.
The team’s board of directors had just sounded the “everything’s okay” alarm for the second time in a month. The Lakers, meanwhile, were mired in a five-game losing streak while the visitors came strutting in having not lost in 22-straight.
The odds of halting the slide didn’t appear in Fort Frances’ favour as the SIJHL’s leading team, the Fort William North Stars, were entering the Ice For Kids Arena with just a single blemish on their record.
The Lakers had been lit up by the North Stars at times this season, to the tunes of 11-6, 8-0, and 11-2, but also had kept some games relatively close (5-2, 4-2, and 5-3).
But it is the Christmas season, and with Santa in the stands, perhaps the situation was ripe for a little magic to take place.
With a decent-sized crowd on hand, the scene was set. The North Stars came in tinged with arrogance, whether it was the decision of some Fort William starters to leave the blueline before even the last line of “O Canada” was sung or the cocky way the Stars banged their sticks against the boards at the start of the second period./
The Lakers came out flying, with Byron Katapaytuk snapping a shot over North Stars’ back-up goalie Jayme Brattengeier just over four minutes in. And 40 seconds later, Tyler Stevenson got a bit of open space and put a sick deke on Brattengeier to give the Lakers a 2-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
It was easy to tell that Stevenson was pumped after the goal, but it didn’t come off in a condescending kind of way. The kid genuinely was happy to score a big goal—that grew in significance as time went on—in a big game.
Cue the collapse, right? I mean, after the Lakers had teased the home crowd with identical 2-0 first-period advantages against both K&A and Dryden, a similar spectacular disaster was bound to happen against the Zeus of the SIJHL.
With that history in mind, I actually wrote down “Uh oh, Lakers score first” in my notepad after Katapaytuk’s goal.
But Lakers’ goalie Jameson Shortreed had progressed in his appearances over the week. He had put together a promising first period in an 8-5 loss to K&A on Dec. 12, including a diving stop on Wolverines’ star Alex Porrier, but then was shelled for five goals in a 16:04 span before being pulled.
Shortreed was better in last Tuesday night’s 3-2 shootout loss to Dryden, again making acrobatic saves, including stopping Chad Liley on a 2-on-1 and then clamping down on a BJ McClellan chance later on.
Friday’s performance easily was the pinnacle, however, as the 16-year-old Emo native made countless game-saving, jaw-dropping stops that kept the North Stars clutching their sticks all night.
Sure, there were hints the North Stars just weren’t their usual conquering selves on Friday. Their first two penalties were 200 feet away from their own net, and they took not one, but two, too many men on the ice infractions. Even Brattengeier got in on the action, knocking down penalty-killer Henry Gutierrez as he tried to hustle back into the play.
Granted, if Friday’s performance was North Stars-light, the full dose must be a heavy injection of talent. Fort William still managed to outshoot the hosts in each period, and by an almost-unfair 48-19 margin on the night.
That means Shortreed was forced to make 47 saves and I’ll reiterate—a fair portion of those were not of the routine variety.
In the second intermission, there was an air in the arena that something special was happening on that sheet of ice out there. The Lakers had made it through two periods unscathed, though that was by the skin of their teeth.
But the halfway point was passed. It would just take 20 more minutes of buckle-up, hunker-down hockey to complete the improbable.
The puck dropped to start the third and the North Stars pressed. And pressed. But Shortreed was equal to the challenge—finding solutions to slapshots, snapshots, backhands, forehands, dekes, and rebounds.
Fans in the stands reacted with building applause with each stop. The Muskie girls’ team even congregated in the area behind Shortreed’s net with about eight minutes to play after their 8-2 win over the Red Lake Rams over in the ’52 Canadians Arena.
But with 3:41 left, Fort William made for a Hollywood-style dramatic ending as Jordan Davis, who hails from Devlin, crashed through the Lakers’ defence to the net and the puck just seemed to slide its way across the red line.
Shortreed said after the game it went off of a skate, but the fluke was all that passed him all night.
The Lakers then were forced into absolute lockdown mode as Fort William drove full bore into the Fort Frances zone. Much of those final minutes were North Star passes and shots while the Lakers slid into harm’s way in an attempt to help their overworked goalie.
To Fort William’s credit, they out-waited most of those block attempts to step around and try again. As a stalling tactic, though, it worked to perfection as the Lakers were able to kill the clock and put the toe tag on the North Stars’ 22-game win streak.
Friday night’s performance was gutsy, and as coach Wayne Strachan put it, “we can play with these teams.” They finally proved it. The victory marked the first time this season that Fort Frances had beaten either Fort William or Dryden, who occupy the top two spots in the SIJHL.
After the game, the Lakers stormed off the bench to maul Shortreed in celebration, and the entire team saluted the crowd at centre ice. It was a touching moment given what the team has been through since its inception.
But now it’s time to put up or shut up. Friday night’s win easily is the turning point of the season (if the season truly does turn). If the Lakers are able to put together a respectable second half and rally their way past K&A and Sioux Lookout into their goal of third-place overall, then the Fort William game must be the first place the Lakers look to in regards to a 180-degree turnaround.
That’s not only for the season because Friday’s win could go down as a defining game for the franchise in its history. Short of getting Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin to pull on Laker uniforms and dominate Friday’s game, Fort Frances did everything they could do in a single 60 minutes to prove this is a competitive team that’s worth the price of admission.
If the skeptics needed a single win, that was it.
The challenge now is recapturing that lightning in a bottle in the 2010 portion of the schedule and stringing together some impressive games. The Lakers resume the SIJHL campaign with a Jan. 2 date at the Fort William Gardens against the very same North Stars, who no doubt will be stewing in the bitter loss for two weeks and should provide even more of a challenge for that go-around.
With two games in two nights to kick off the second half, the “Shocking on Scott Street” may be a distant memory by the time the Lakers play their next home game Jan. 14 against the K&A Wolverines.
It’s one thing to finally get in that one great shot against the defending heavyweight champs. It’s another to get in a second one when they realize you’re not a half-bad fighter after all.