It wasn’t an ivory tower, just a small, gated platform extending out over one corner of the Couchiching Arena.
But it gave Wayne Strachan a different vantage point to judge his team’s strengths and weaknesses—and gave his players a clear indication they were under the microscope.
With their head coach and general manager watching from on high, clipboard in hand and note-taking pen at the ready, the Lakers brought their best effort of the pre-season Monday night with a 4-2 triumph over the Minnesota Iron Rangers to conclude their four-game exhibition schedule at 1-3.
“Obviously that was our strongest game of the four,” said Strachan.
“I wasn’t overly pleased with our last effort in Steinbach [a 4-1 loss Friday to the Pistons],” he added.
“I wanted to send a message [by being off the bench area] that I would be evaluating the players, and be watching for them to have more intensity and jump in their game,” Strachan noted.
“For the most part, the guys answered the bell.”
Iron Rangers’ head coach Chris Walby wasn’t handing out any beauty pageant bouquets.
“It was ugly—definitely pre-season hockey,” said Walby, whose squad has seven returning players from last year and beat the Lakers 3-1 to open the pre-season back on Sept. 2 down in Hoyt Lakes.
“Our team’s not fully polished,” he added. “We’ve got a lot to work on.”
The Lakers listened to their coach’s mantra leading up to the game to get more effective with their forechecking, which directly resulted in the team’s first two goals.
Dylan Robertson, one of only five Lakers from last season currently on the roster, forced a turnover behind the Minnesota net and fed a quick pass in front to Andrew Wilner, who labelled a one-timer past Iron Rangers’ goalie Kyle Carignan at 4:03 of the first.
More pressure in the zone led to another Lakers’ goal at 6:40 as David Pryde and Cole Tymkin combined to set up John Cuni, who drove the net hard and slid the puck home while lying on his stomach.
“Especially the newer guys need to see that their way doesn’t work and our way does,” said Strachan.
“The vets addressed this before the game with them.”
The Iron Rangers got on the board at 4:11 of the second on a short-handed goal by Tristin Sabina, who wired a shot to the glove side of Lakers’ goalie Brandon Bodnar.
But only 1:40 later, with the Rangers trying to fend off a two-man advantage, Ryley Bosman pounced on a juicy rebound and ripped a bullet under Carignan’s glove to re-establish the Lakers’ two-goal lead.
“[Nick] Minerva had a good shot and I saw the puck coming back out, and I just got it past his glove,” described the 19-year-old Calgary native, who walked off the plane in Winnipeg last Friday and was skating in the game against Steinbach just hours later.
“We got the win, that’s what matters,” added Bosman, who played for the Kindersley Clippers (SJHL) and the Creston Valley Thunder of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League last season.
“There’s some chemistry to be built but we were able to take it home.”
Strachan gave Bosman high marks for his home debut.
“He moves his feet and is a big-bodied presence,” he noted. “Whether it was on the 5-on-3 or another power-play, he was parked right in front.
“He will go to the dirty areas and pay the price for the team.”
The Iron Rangers pulled Carignan for an extra attacker and Gus Karkinen gave the crowd at “The Duke” reason to worry when Bodnar whiffed trying to catch his wrist shot from the point with 1:05 to go to slice the lead to 3-2.
But the Lakers weren’t leaving the pre-season empty-handed and iced the victory on Robertson’s empty-netter with 18 seconds left.
“[Bodnar] probably would want the second one back,” Strachan said about who appears to be his No. 2 goalie heading into the regular season.
“But he had a strong game and gave us a chance to be in the game, and then to keep the lead,” he added.
“And our defence all around was better and really came up big.”
The Lakers had another newcomer in the lineup against the Iron Rangers in forward Matt Ray, who played last season with the English River Miners (SIJHL) and the Thunder Bay Northern Hawks of the Thunder Bay Junior ‘B’ Hockey League.
“Matt just got released from the Oshawa Generals’ camp,” noted Strachan.
“He’s familiar with the league and has very smart hockey sense.”
The Lakers will be put through some rigorous paces this week at practice (“It’s going to be a little bit tough,” grinned Strachan somewhat diabolically) before beginning their hopeful march to a third-straight SIJHL title.
That quest officially begins next Tuesday (Sept. 22) when the Lakers head to Ear Falls to battle the Miners, led by new head coach and general manager Derek Coulter-Sweet.
The Lakers then will host the Dryden Ice Dogs in their home-opener next Friday (Sept. 24) at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.