First-place Lakers keep on rolling

Joey Payeur

Brent Aiken made such a good first impression, the referee even was recognizing him for things he didn’t do.
Aiken was credited with a goal and an assist in his first game with the Fort Frances Lakers (7-1-0-1), who extended their SIJHL winning streak to six games with a 6-1 hammering of the visiting Wisconsin Wilderness (1-5) on Saturday night.
Aiken clearly tipped in Tanner Fricke’s point shot at 6:48 of the second to make it 3-1—just 26 seconds after Miles Nolan broke the tie for the home squad, with both goals coming during a double minor for high-sticking to Wisconsin’s Danny Toylen against Bryce Lipinski.
Hunter Leishman then tipped in John Dora’s point shot during the next Lakers’ man advantage at 12:40 for his fourth goal in as many games.
But when the scoring play was announced over the PA system, it was Aiken who got credit for an assist instead of Dora.
“Yeah, John took that shot,” Aiken admitted with a chuckle.
It all evened out for Aiken in the third, when his slapshot ricocheted off the crossbar to deprive him of his second goal of the night.
But it was a strong opening for the Kenora native, who finally was playing his first competitive game of the season after joining his third different team in a third different league in just the past month.
First, it was the Flin Flon Bombers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League shipping him to the Winkler Flyers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in the pre-season.
But before he got a chance to see the ice with Winkler, he was dealt to the Lakers on Oct. 3 for a player development fee.
“It’s good to get that first goal out of the way,” noted Aiken, who played the last two seasons with his hometown Kenora Thistles Midget ‘AAA’ squad.
“The guys have welcomed me here no problem,” he added. “This is going to be a good spot for me.”
Aiken wasn’t the only player to get a gift-wrapped point Saturday night.
Nolan was awarded his second of the night and fourth of the season at 5:04 of the third, with the goal coming two seconds late to count as the fourth-consecutive power play on which the Lakers cashed in.
But upon further review. . . .
“I’m pretty sure that second one belongs to [Torrin] Grange,” smiled Nolan about his linemate, who nevertheless scored himself on a booming shot with 2:02 left for his third of the season to close out the scoring, with Donovan Cousineau earning his third assist of the night.
Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan liked what he saw out of Aiken and Nolan.
“Brent brings an edge to our lineup and likes to finish his checks,” noted Strachan.
“Obviously, he needs to get his legs into game shape but I like the impact he had on our lineup.
“Miles is always doing something to help the team,” Strachan added.
“Tonight he came to play. He stepped up to get the team rolling.”
Nolan, whose first goal broke an 0-for-12 slump for the Lakers’ power play, cited a team-wide focus to stop the opposition as the key to the squad’s run of good fortune.
“Everyone’s buying into our defensive system,” he remarked. “We know we have to think defence first.”
With only 14 skaters for the game because of injury, and a 15th forced to serve as the back-up goalie to starter Luke Thompson, Wisconsin hung in for as long as it could in a game where it was outshot 43-15.
Fricke’s second of the year on a wicked wrist shot at 2:37 of the first was the lone goal of the opening frame against Thompson (37 saves).
Zach Kraft then put the Wilderness on equal footing 30 seconds into the second, knocking in a rebound after Lakers’ goalie Ryan Ferguson (13 saves) stopped Darrick Howard’s initial shot.
But the Lakers’ man-advantage proficiency took over from there and the Wilderness ran out of gas—exemplified by the Fort outshooting Wisconsin 14-2 in the third.
The Lakers showed no ill effects from a long return trip the night before from Ear Falls, where they edged the English River Miners 3-2.
The expansion Miners—coming off the first victory of their existence the previous night with a 3-1 win over Wisconsin—proved a far more difficult obstacle than they showed in a 12-2 blowout loss to the Lakers here back on Sept. 21.
Sporting five new players in the lineup, English River pushed the visitors to the limit on a night which saw Lakers’ goalie Jordan Cartney get his first start since sustaining a lower-body injury Sept. 25 against the Dryden Ice Dogs.
The Miners broke the ice at 7:46 of the first, thanks to captain Royce King, but Leishman tied it at 12:58.
Billy Grillo then tallied his fourth of the campaign at 13:20 of the second to make it 2-1 for the Lakers.
Mason Meyer scored the eventual game-winner a tick past three minutes later—tipping in a shot from Lucas DeBenedet.
Paul Lamoureaux brought English River to within one at 18:45 to set up a hard-fought but scoreless third period.
“Their goalie [P.D. Melgoza] was the first star of the game,” lauded Strachan.
“It’s a little smaller rink there and their system was clogging everything up,” he noted.
Kyle Lipinski had an assist on Grillo’s goal in his return from a lower-body injury, but the blueliner was held out of Saturday night’s game as a precaution.
That leaves defenceman Cody Wickstrom, still out indefinitely while recovering from an illness, as the only Laker residing in sick bay.
But the team did lose the services of forward Dylan Curtis after he played in his third game of the year against the Miners, with Strachan saying Curtis announced he was leaving the team for good afterwards.
“It’s an unfortunate situation for our forward depth on the team,” Strachan said about the departure of the 18-year-old Emo native.
“But what are you going to do?”
The league-leading Lakers are three points up on second-place Dryden (6-4), with a game in hand on the Ice Dogs.
The Thunder Bay North Stars (5-0-0-1) are four points behind Fort Frances, but have three games in hand on the Lakers, who will wrap up the home-and-home series against the Wilderness this Friday in Spooner before heading to Thunder Bay to take on the North Stars on Saturday.
The Lakers’ next “home” game is set for next Wednesday (Oct. 23) at 7:30 p.m. at the new Couchiching First Nation Arena, where they’ll take on the Minnesota Iron Rangers.