It’s a tight situation at the top of the SIJHL—and the Fort Frances Lakers are right in the thick of things.
The Lakers (17-8-1) sat atop the standings with 35 points, one point up on second-place Dryden.
Those two teams were slated to clash here last night but the game was postponed due to the poor road conditions.
The Wisconsin Wilderness also have 34 points, although they have played a league-low 23 games.
The Thunder Bay North Stars, meanwhile, have 33 points to sit in fourth place.
Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan said that with all the teams so bunched up, the deck shuffles with each night of game action.
“It seems like every night it’s changing back and forth,” observed Strachan, but who didn’t think the stress of being so close together was in the back of his players’ minds.
What has been weighing on some minds is Hockey Canada’s cutdown date at 11:59 p.m. tonight (Dec. 1).
Each team must be down to 25 players. Although the Lakers already are at that number, two-three players will be released to give the squad some roster flexibility before the Jan. 10 trade deadline.
“The guys that are in and out of the lineup are reading into things that maybe they shouldn’t right now,” noted Strachan.
“They can only control their game and their performance, and what they can give to the team,” he stressed.
Strachan expected to have the decisions a day in advance.
“That’s cutting it close, but we have all day Wednesday,” he reasoned.
“Our biggest thing is seeing if Zach McCool is healthy,” Strachan said. “We need to make sure that he’s 100 percent.
“That’s one thing that we’ll be keying on the next couple of days and making sure that he can play every day.”
McCool has been limited to just four games this season because of injury and illness.
The cellar-dwelling Duluth Clydesdales and Sioux Lookout Flyers are the two teams Fort Frances beat last week, although both by narrow margins.
On Friday, the Lakers had to rally from a 3-0 deficit to edge the visiting Flyers 5-4 before holding off the host Clydesdales 6-4 on Sunday night.
It wasn’t quite as steep a hill against Duluth as Jon Sinclair’s fifth of the season tied the game just 3:15 after Matt Jerulle had opened the scoring.
The Lakers then reeled off four-straight goals in the second period. Ryan Wildman notched his fifth of the year at 7:06 before Sinclair’s second of the night came 1:07 later.
Wildman came through again with 16 seconds left in the period, then Jaret Leclair, with his ninth, tallied with just one tick on the clock to put Fort Frances up 5-1 heading into the third.
Duluth charged back early in the final frame as Joe Nelson scored two goals 1:07 apart before the
period was two minutes old to bring the Clydesdales to within 5-3.
Connor Hady, notching his second of the year, netted a short-handed marker at 15:31 to restore the Lakers’ three-goal lead, although Casey Eckman made the final score look better by tallying with three seconds left.
Tyler Ampe made 32 saves for the Lakers while Jeff Dunaisky blocked 30 for the Clydesdales.
Byron Katapaytuk had four assists on the night.
The team was delayed getting into Duluth, arriving about 75 minutes before the game, and Strachan noted the hectic time before the game seemed to weigh on the team for the first few minutes.
“We came out of the gate slow, I guess from getting there late,” he remarked. “I thought that might happen, but as the period went on, we seemed to get our legs.
“All in all, it was a decent effort by us.”
Things had gotten off to a far worse start against the visiting Flyers on Friday night as the lethargic Lakers fell behind 2-0 in the first period.
Galen Matyjanka got things started 3:55 in, turning Josh Scott inside out before wristing a shot glove side on Jameson Shortreed.
The Flyers doubled their advantage at 13:53 when Darnell Ferland buried a Kalen Ewald rebound.
Strachan described the goal as essentially a replay of a number of other opponent tallies this month.
“They get a goal that’s haunted us this month, with the defence putting the puck to the net and the rebound going right to the guy,” he observed.
“It’s something we’ve talked about,” he added. “It’s something we’ve worked on in practice, but we’re just not getting it right now.”
Sioux Lookout then went up 3-0 just 2:15 into the second period when Chase Dobranski batted a shot over Shortreed’s shoulder.
The Lakers contended it was a high stick, but lost the argument.
Fort Frances finally got going midway through the frame as Henry Gutierrez took a Tyler Stevenson rebound on the power play and deked out goalie Jayme Brattengeier at 8:09.
“I was just trying to get the team going,” said Gutierrez, who netted his eight of the season. “I’m always crashing the net, so I just tried to put my body in front of the net and see what happens.
“It was a pretty good feeling.”
However, things were set in motion moments before.
“I think that shift right before that, the Jon Sinclair line with [Jace] Baldwin and Jordan Sinclair, they got the ball rolling with our style,” Strachan lauded.
“They forced a turnover in their end, they cycled the puck, and they had a few good chances.
“Henry went out there with a four-on-four situation and he put in the second effort to put the puck in,” Strachan added.
After Ferland’s second of the game—again on a rebound—put the Flyers up 4-1 at 12:40, Fort Frances exploded late in the frame, knotting the game heading into the third.
First, Baldwin chipped the puck over Brattengeier’s right shoulder at 15:31, then Stevenson banked home his 25th just 31 seconds later.
Leclair got the equalizer at 18:08 as he was allowed to cruise out in front of the net and wrist one blocker side.
Baldwin notched the lone goal of the third, with his 10th of the year coming at 4:45 looking like a carbon copy of his earlier tally.
“It felt good, I didn’t have to do too much,” said Baldwin of his goals.
“My linemates were doing a good job of finding open ice,” he remarked.
Shortreed made 35 saves while Brattengeier stopped 31 shots.
“It’s definitely a win we’ll take,” said Strachan. “I don’t know if it was our most solid effort or our best game by far.
“Anytime you can come back from a 3-0 deficit and come out with a victory in the third period, you’ve got to be happy and it shows the character in the room,” he added.