The Fort Frances Lakers knew this recent stretch of games was going to be tough for them.
The last four all came against the first- and second-place teams in the SIJHL in the Thunder Bay North Stars and Red Lake Miners.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, all ended in losses, including a pair of 5-2 setbacks to those clubs over the weekend here.
“We got outworked, for the most part, in the first [period] even though we had more shots than them,” Lakers’ head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan said after Saturday night’s loss to the Miners.
“We just never created good enough opportunities and that’s kind of how the weekend went.”
Strachan felt his squad didn’t play poorly in either loss over the weekend but the difference came due to issues in their own zone.
It’s something that has plagued the Lakers all season and continues to rear its ugly head.
“I liked our emotions and our work ethic, I even liked our physicality,” Strachan remarked.
“But we can’t run-and-gun with Thunder Bay and expect to beat ’em,” he stressed.
“The biggest thing through the first period today [Saturday], and even last night [Friday], is our defensive breakdowns still haunt us or hurt us, and at some point we gotta realize we gotta change our game to have success.”
While riding a four-game losing streak heading into tonight’s annual SIJHL all-star game in less than ideal for the Lakers, it could serve as a much-needed mental break and a good opportunity to recharge and refocus ahead of their next league game this Saturday night (Dec. 1) against the host North Stars.
Fort Frances is hosting this year’s all-star festivities, with the skills competition set to go at 6 p.m. and the game to follow at 7:30.
The game will feature a “border battle” format, with Strachan being named head coach of the Team Canada squad on Thursday.
He will be joined by Lakers’ players Brett Hahkala, Kirk Coppock, Dane Bateman, and MacKenzie Flett.
The Lakers’ players on the U.S. squad included Anthony Antonelli, Nate Drobnick, Nick Lucas, Jaedin Ness, and Chase Robideau.
“It’s going to be a great experience and we’re going to take it all in,” Strachan said of the all-star festivities.
“It’s great to host it and have it here in Fort Frances and it’s a good time to, I guess, get away from the competitive edge with fellow coaches and players from around the league and get to know one another,” he added.
“We’ll have a little fun and hopefully come [tonight], Team Canada will be ready to showcase themselves and have a little pride in being Canada and want to avenge last year’s loss as a lot of those same guys will be taking part in the game so they know what it’s all about.”
As for the pair of weekend losses, Bryce Young and Ethan Stuckless each scored twice in the first period to lead second-place Red Lake (15-4-0-0) to their fifth-straight victory Saturday night at the Ice For Kids Arena.
After Young opened the scoring 1:12 into the game, Stuckless doubled the lead just over three minutes later when he buried a rebound over a sprawled Matt Booth in the Lakers’ net.
Stuckless then skated into the Lakers’ zone before cutting across to the left side of the ice and rifling one home to make it 3-0.
Young notched his second of the frame short-handed after a Lakers’ turnover at their own blueline to put the visitors up by four after 20 minutes.
Noah Loveday finally put the fourth-place Lakers (9-12-0-0) on the board 14:46 into the second on a two-man advantage when he took a feed from Nate Drobnick and wired a shot past Miners’ goalie Zach Willms to trim it to 4-1.
But Spencer Milne put the Miners back up by four just 1:54 into the third when he snapped one in over Booth during their own two-man advantage.
Nick Lucas was able to bury a rebound upstairs over Willms at 11:23 to trim it to 5-2 but that’s as close as the Lakers got.
Willms made 42 saves to earn the win while Booth made 24 stops in a losing effort.
On Friday night, the visiting front-running North Stars (18-1-1-0) built a four-goal lead, then held off a late Lakers’ comeback bid, to nab their eighth-straight win.
Evan Nicholas opened the scoring when he netted one into the open side off a point shot that had careened off the end boards and bounced right out to him for a tap-in at 12:24.
Joel Willan (even strength) and Ryan Mignault (power play) then connected in the second to put the visitors up by three after 40 minutes.
Willan then sent Jacob Anttonen in on a shorthanded breakaway, which he made no mistake on in the third to make it 4-0.
Kirk Coppock’s eighth goal of the season finally put the Lakers on the board at 8:36.
Jaedin Ness then added another with Anttonen in the box as he finished off a nice three-way passing play from Lucas and Brett Hahkala.
The Lakers then pulled goalie Jacob Gnidziejko in the late stages in an effort to force overtime but Mignault iced it with a long-range empty-netter at 19:25 to cap the scoring.
The North Stars outshot the Lakers by a 49-31 margin, with Brock Aiken picking up the win and Gnidziejko suffering the loss.
“As far as the team, we’ll be back on the ice Monday and we’ll skate every day as a team, except for Wednesday,” noted Strachan.
“Only the non-all-star guys will practise then.
“We’re going through a tough stretch here and once December comes around, we’re gonna play Thunder Bay, we see Red Lake twice, Thief River Falls [Norskies] two or three times, and Dryden a couple times,” Strachan added.
“We’ve dug ourselves a little bit of a hole here the last three or four hockey games,” he conceded.
“If you look at the amount of goals we’ve let in, it’s not good and we need to shore that up and if we don’t, we might be really shooting ourselves in the foot,” he warned.