Lakers end regular season on roll

Joey Payeur

Ben Kinne had recruitment on his mind.
Dylan Robertson and Nick Minerva gave him plenty to consider.
Minerva’s no-look pass to Robertson resulted in the game-winning goal at 2:05 of overtime as the Fort Frances Lakers ended the regular season by winning its eighth straight game with a 5-4 victory over the English River Miners in SIJHL action at the Ice for Kids Arena this past Sunday.
Kinne, an assistant coach for the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota Cardinals men’s hockey team based in Winona, Mn., that plays in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, was in town this past weekend with his eye on adding some of the soon-to-be-overaged talent on display for the Lakers.
After lengthy discussions between Kinne and the SIJHL’s top two point-getters after Saturday’s 6-3 win over English River, it was clear Robertson and Minerva’s having their hockey careers continue at Saint Mary’s could definitely be in the cards — even more so after their Sunday heroics.
With Fort Frances (46-6-0-2) on a 4-on-3 power-play, with three of their four defencemen, Dustin Deugau pinched in from the point and fed Minerva in front.
The top offensive defenceman in the entire CJHL this season and this week’s choice as the Amyotte’s Awards & Promotions player of the week for the second time this season (nine points in the three weekend games) then put the puck between his legs behind him.
Robertson rushed in to accept the setup and park it upstairs on Miners goalie Korlan Vader.
That goal was Robertson’s team-leading 31st goal of the year, just one behind league leader Nicholas Nigro of the Thunder Bay North Stars (32).
It was also the Laker captain’s league-best seventh game-winner of the season, tied him with Nic Noseworthy of the Dryden GM Ice Dogs for top spot in overtime goals this year with two and was his 88th point to complete his march to the SIJHL scoring title.
“Our leaders who have led us especially in the last couple of weeks and, really, all season came through,” lauded Fort general manager and head coach Wayne Strachan about his lethal duo.
Strachan was less pleased with the fact the game had to go to overtime at all after the two-time defending Salonen Cup champions who now have won three straight regular-season crowns let a 4-1 second-period lead slip away.
“Honestly, I would say it was not our best overall weekend,” he analyzed after his team won all three games against English River, including a 5-1 win on Friday, and ended up going a spotless 14-0 in the season series with the Miners (12-37-0-3).
“But getting the six points is what we wanted.”
Dylan Kooner, who returned to game action this weekend after fracturing his scapula on Jan. 3, followed up his first two games that saw him get one assist each night with his first goal when he potted his league-leading fourth shorthanded marker for his 17th goal of the year to open the scoring on Sunday at 13:26 of the first.
“The first game I was pretty rusty, especially in the first period, but I knew that was going to happen,” stated Kooner.
“I had a few chances and just couldn’t bury them,” he remarked.
“But today {Sunday}, I got a break and was in a good spot.”
“Dylan can always be an effective player with what he can create with his speed,” chimed in Strachan.
“It was good to see him back in it.”
Braeden Pearce tied it on the power-play at 15:55 before the Fort caught goal-scoring fever early in the second.
Nolan Ross’ 13th tally of the year at 1:31 was followed 19 seconds later by Christian Ripley with his 25th, giving the blazing-hot Ripley 15 points during his current seven-game point-scoring streak that helped him finish eighth overall in league scoring with 49 points—one of five Lakers (Robertson, Minerva, Andrew Willner, Ripley and Cole Tymkin) in the top 10 in points.
Davis Ross then made his mark with his ninth of the season at 7:32, one of seven power-play goals on 23 chances in the three-game sweep.
English River pecked away at the deficit and received a power-play marker from Alex Maticic at 12:31 and another goal from Mike Norris at 17:37 to trim the gap to 4-3.
Brandon Schaber then sniped his 10th of the year at 5:27 of the third to bring the Miners even.
Brandon Bodnar, who started two of the three games this weekend, made 31 saves through regulation and overtime to raise the Laker backup goalie’s record to an outstanding 18-4 in his rookies season.
The Fort Frances native also finished as the SIJHL’s No. 1-ranked netminder in terms of goals-against average (1.94) and save percentage (.935).
Vader had 41 saves in a losing cause for English River, which moves on to face the fourth-place Minnesota Iron Rangers (21-31-2-2) in a best-of-five first-round series starting tonight in Ear Falls.
The winner advances to the semifinals and a best-of-seven encounter with the Lakers, tentatively scheduled to begin on April 1 here.
In Friday’s opener, the teams just used the middle 20 minutes to take care of all their scoring for the evening.
Minerva collected a pair of power-play goal, while Tymkin, Nolan Ross and Robertson chipped in with singles.
Tymkin made it to the end of the game, but was done for the weekend after that.
His tripping minor against Kyle Sanford at 11:04 of the third was upgraded the next day by the league to a major for clipping and meant a two-game suspension for the league’s rookie scoring leader (48 points).
Willner also missed the last two games for precautionary reasons after being hit during Friday’s game and having his visor driven into a spot just above his right eye, cutting him for four stitches and a leaving him with a dark-red eyelid.
Bodnar had 29 saves in the victory, while Reid Kilburn stopped 39 in defeat for the Miners.
On Saturday, Fort Frances made the visitors pay with three power-play goals as part of a four-goal surge in the second.
Ripley lit the lamp twice, while with Deugau, Minerva, Jack Bernie and Tanner Garnham all getting shots past a beleagured Kilburn.
Garnham was rewarded for his hard work all season by making the most of some rare power-play time with a redirection of Deugau’s point shot with 23 seconds left to polay to give Garnham his first goal of the season and end a 42-game drought.
“That was my job—stand in front of the net, win the battles and hope for the best,” beamed the Portage la Prairie, Man., native with a million-volt grin on his face.
“Tips and cross-checks in the back—gotta love ‘em.”
Pierce Dushenko made 39 saves to finish the regular season as the league leader in goaltending victories with a 28-4-0-2 record and finishing second to Bodnar in GAA (2.68) and save percentage (.920).
Kilburn recorded 35 stops in defeat.
Besides Tymkin and Willner missing in action, the Lakers also did without forward A.J. Rupert (post-concussion syndrome) and defencemen Brandon Zajicek (undisclosed) and Robbie Bonthron (post-concussion).
All hands are expected to be back on deck for the playoff opener, save for Bonthron, who is still out indefinitely.