Lacklustre Lakers look to rebound after losses

Dan Falloon

Maybe the Ice For Kids Arena was haunted.
Maybe the visitors were more interested in playing an amped-up Mr. Hyde than timid Dr. Jekyll.
Or maybe the Fort Frances Lakers (9-6-1) just got into the Hallowe’en candy a little bit too early, as they lost both home games to lower-ranked opponents last week, falling 3-1 to the Dryden Ice Dogs last Tuesday and then 3-2 in overtime to the Sioux Lookout Flyers on Thursday night.
The losses dropped the Lakers from the national Canadian Junior Hockey League rankings.
They sat 17th on the list last week, but there was no mention of them in this Monday’s edition.
Team captain Tyler Stevenson said that the ranking probably weighed on the Lakers’ minds more than it should have, and tried to give the situation a little perspective.
“In a way, probably more than it should,” admitted Stevenson.
“It’s a nice honour, but we don’t want to be there now.
“We want to be there at the end of the year when it actually counts, and be no. 1, not 17,” he added.
Head coach Wayne Strachan predicted the drop-off after lambasting the team’s effort in the loss to Dryden, though the Lakers came out flying in the early going against the Flyers.
The hosts finished off the first period, in which they outshot the Flyers 15-5, with a power-play goal from Stevenson, who banged away around goalie Jesse Wilkins before knocking home his league-leading 15th tally of the year at 16:30.
The goal salvaged a power-play in which Jace Baldwin had been foiled moments earlier on a give-and-go with Blake Boaz.
But the Flyers (4-11-1) responded with a pair of goals early in the second.
Allowed a two-on-one break, Nelson Rosiak kept the puck and fired a high shot over Lakers‘ goalie Jameson Shortreed.
Then just 1:56 later, Dwight Lee buried a rebound to stake the visitors to a 2-1 lead.
Shortreed had made the initial save on Darnell Ferland, but the rebound came right to Lee, who made no mistake.
Sioux Lookout’s Brett Ferguson had a chance to double the lead later in the period, but his wrister clanged off the crossbar and bounced out.
The Lakers stormed back and knotted the game in the third when Henry Gutierrez forced his fifth goal of the season past Wilkins on the power-play at 12:52.
In overtime, though, the Flyers were given another two-on-one—an Achilles heel for Fort Frances all game long.
This time Kalan Ewald dished off to Rosiak, who fired the puck into the yawning cage at 2:55.
Shortreed ended up with 25 saves while Wilkins, who turned in a 51-save performance in a win over the Lakers earlier in the year, stopped 39.
Though it was Phil Jennrich who was burned on the overtime winner, Strachan said that the whole defensive core had to shoulder some blame for poor pinches.
“It was a case of selfishness,” stressed Strachan.
“In the second period, they probably had, I’m going to take a guess, five to six two-on-ones because our [defence] kept pinching and not taking the body.
“To correct it is mentally—play the game smart and play the game to the gameplan,” he continued.
“When we pinch, we take the man. We only pinch if there’s a third man.
“It’s just unnecessary breakdowns that have cost us the last two games against teams that we should beat,” concluded Strachan.
Defensive troubles aside, the Lakers were also unable to convert offensively, and though Wilkins made a large number of saves, he wasn’t tested with several bona fide opportunities.
“For the most part, we carried the play. We had many chances to score, but for some reason, the wells went dry in the scoring department,” said Strachan.
“It just has to be a downright better effort than that.
“We should not lose to the Sioux Lookout Flyers,” he emphasized.
Like against Sioux Lookout, the game against Dryden also started out in a promising way.
Fort Frances Lakers’ forward Byron Katapaytuk made more than just fans happy early on.
Katapaytuk’s power-play tally just 3:54 into the game sent fans into a coat-tossing frenzy as 30 winter coats, along with hats, mitts, and wool socks, were collected for the Associates of St. Marguerite d’Youville’s annual coat drive.
That extra joy seemed to fill the Lakers’ quota, however, as Dryden goalie Ian Perrier responded to the weak dribbler through his legs—which snapped a two-game shutout streak—by turning aside 33 other Fort Frances shots.
The Ice Dogs rallied to tie the game midway through the second period.
Jesse Linner’s initial shot was blocked by defenceman Cody Hasbargen, but Linner dug the puck out from underneath him and wired a wrister past Lakers’ goalie Jameson Shortreed.
The Ice Dogs then took the lead in the late stages of the third when Jacob Ransom, right off a face-off to the right of the Lakers’ goal, quickly shot the puck, catching all Lakers off-guard and beating Shortreed low at 11:39.
The goal came on the power-play, snapping to Lakers’ streak of games without allowing a power-play goal at 11.
The Ice Dogs iced the victory with an empty-net goal by Ian Schachte with 18 seconds left after the Lakers failed to score on a late power play (Perrier stopping Jaret Leclair on a cross-ice pass from Blake Boaz was the only major threat).
Shortreed made 28 saves in all.
Strachan said that with forward Zach McCool expected to return from injury this week and a trade for a potential top-six forward in the works, as many as two players who have been mainstays in the lineup could find themselves in the stands this week.
Strachan noted that he would review game film before deciding who might shuffle out of the lineup.
The Lakers will look to rebound as they face the newly-reminted Thunder Bay North Stars in Lakehead tonight (Nov. 3).
Though the North Stars’ new ownership dropped “Fort William” in favour of the more-inclusive “Thunder Bay”, the crew on the ice is still in a familiar spot.
The North Stars (10-4-1) lead the league with 21 points, though the Wisconsin Wilderness (9-2-1), who are tied with the Lakers at 19 points, have the loop’s best winning percentage, holding four games in hand on the Lakers and three on Thunder Bay.
The Lakers will then enjoy a brief homestand, hosting expansion cousins Duluth on Friday (Nov. 5) and Wisconsin on Tuesday (Nov. 9).
Leading into the marquee matchup with the North Stars, against whom the Lakers are 2-2 this year, Strachan stressed the need for improved fundamentals defensively.
“It’s not like we gave up a lot of great scoring chances in these last two games,” he said.
“It’s little things like we talked about—not giving up odd-man rushes, not picking up your men and not giving them second and third opportunities on rebound chances or even giving up the puck in the middle of the ice at the blue line.
“They’re things that when we’re mentally focused and prepared, we don’t do, and come Wednesday, if we do it, it’s going to be a lot uglier than 3-1 and 3-2 in overtime,” he concluded.
Stevenson, meanwhile, hoped that the first taste of adversity would help provide a jolt to a team that had been able to cruise for the better part of the year.
“We’ve just got to regroup, we’ve got to work hard, and get our priorities straight,” reasoned Stevenson.
“We’ll find out what we’re made of as a team, and try to use these to come together.”
Stevenson said that he and his alternate captains tried to pump up the team on the bench, but in the end, there’s only so much they can do to impact a teammate’s motivation.
“We try to stay positive all game, and stay up on the bench,” said Stevenson.
“We lead by example on and off the ice and do everything we can to help the younger guys and everyone else to get going.
“Every time we’re at the rink, we just have to start wanting to be there and working hard,” he continued.
“We’re just making sure our minds are in it, and that we’re giving it everything.
Strachan singled out Stevenson and relative newcomer Brad Bienvenu for taking vocal leadership, but was more concerned about what he perceived to be a lack of leadership on the ice.
“The biggest thing is there was no one on the ice who wanted to take the bull by the horns and lead us,” said Strachan.
“That worries me some, but I know there’s guys in that locker room that can be the leaders and the go-to guys, but it just didn’t happen this week.”
Though the top two lines produced the lion’s share of the limited scoring, the team’s top five scorers combined for just five total points in the two games.
Stevenson, held to a goal in the two games, stressed that the entire team has to show up against teams that are supposedly the also-rans of the league.
“When we play teams that are lower than us, we tend to try to play their game and drop down to their level,” he acknowledged.
“That can’t happen. We’ve got to play our game and stay at our level because when we’re there, not many teams can play with us.”