The Fort Frances Lakers will be looking to bounce back from three-straight losses when they head up Highway 502 to face the Dryden Ice Dogs tonight.
It’s far from time to sound the alarm bells, especially considering this team was assembled in the span of a few weeks during a time in which the rest of the SIJHL was in the midst of training camp.
But Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan wants to see progress in all areas of the ice—and that’s been slow to come around so far.
“I know it’s going to be a process of molding a team together, but it’s frustrating right now,” Strachan admitted. “We talk in practice, we show them breakdowns in practice, we talk before games and draw things on the board, and yet it doesn’t sink in their minds.
“We have to realize we are not in high school, Midget ‘AAA,’ or Junior ‘B’ anymore, and that what you got away with there or what you didn’t learn there doesn’t work at the Junior ‘A’ level,” he stressed.
“We play a certain way and the way we play is team defence first; team comes first before anything.”
The Lakers fell 6-3 to the Ice Dogs here on Sept. 25 and most recently dropped to 1-4 on the season with a 5-2 loss to the host Wisconsin Mustangs a week ago.
The Ice Dogs, meanwhile, have gotten off to a 3-1 start, including a 4-3 victory over the previously-undefeated Fort William North Stars on Saturday.
“Dryden is a team that will be tough all year,” Strachan warned. “They have a new coach [Clint Mylymock], and obviously a new look and new attitude around the team.
“They have many quality players that have returned to the team from last season and they did a good job of recruiting in a talented group of new players,” he lauded.
“We will be in tough if we don’t put together a 60-minute effort and come ready to work hard and play a physical game.”
“Today in practice, we went to the old rink [’52 Canadians] because Dryden has a smaller rink,” noted Lakers’ alternate captain Blake Boaz. “We’re just trying to get a feel of the smaller ice.”
The Lakers have suffered from defensive zone breakdowns and so that’s been much of the focus at practice over the last week.
“Biggest thing we’re working on is our defensive zone coverage. It needs to improve,” Boaz stressed. “We have to start buying into the system here and stop playing the system everyone had last year.”
The team’s penalty kill also has been a sore spot so far, successful at less than a 60 percent clip.
“We’ve been working on it, and yeah, that’s something that needs to improve,” Boaz admitted. “But with a whole new team, everyone is trying to get used to each other.
“‘PK’ is all about working with everyone on the ice, and everyone’s coming from different spots with different ways of penalty killing, and now everyone has to stop doing it their own way and start doing it the Laker way.”
Team management held closed-door meetings with players early last week to address some concerns.
“Some of the guys took it to heart and some it didn’t sink in,” Strachan noted. “For some, the time to be here is running out as the game is surpassing them.
“If they don’t get on board ASAP, they will not make the year as a Junior ‘A’ hockey player.”
The Lakers have shown spurts of good hockey during parts of their first five games, but lapses in concentration and late-game letdowns have plagued them.
“We have to show up for a full 60 [minutes],” Boaz stressed. “We’re showing up for one period and dying out.
“We need to start laying the body more and tiring out the other teams because that’s what they are doing to us.”
That was the story last Wednesday when former Fort Frances Jr. Sabre Dan Smith haunted his old team with a hat trick in a 5-2 Mustangs’ win in Spooner.
“The first seven minutes, we played well getting pucks deep, forechecking hard, playing physical, and getting opportunities to score,” Strachan recalled.
“The next 13 [minutes], we quit skating, quit taking the body, quit playing defence, and they went up 3-0.”
That early deficit led to a
heart-to-heart in the dressing room between periods.
“I challenged [them] for a leader to step up or a line to step up and get the team going,” Strachan said. “It took 15 minutes in the second, but the line of [Anders] Wick, [Ben] Hilborn, and [Irv] Lockman went out, worked hard, hit everything in sight, and almost scored.”
A silver lining in the loss was the minor victory over the final 20 minutes.
“For 20 minutes I watched most of our 20 players work hard, play hard, make smart decisions, and get many scoring chances,” Strachan lauded. “We won the period 1-0.
“We have to realize when we play as a team and do the little things to help one another, we are a good team,” he stressed. “But if we don’t realize it is a 60-minute game, and that it takes hard work for 60 minutes, we will continue to struggle all season.”
The Spooner-based Mustangs are testing the waters in the SIJHL with a 20-game exhibition schedule, but currently are full-time members of the Minnesota Junior ‘A’ Hockey League.
In other news, the Sept. 29 home game against the Sioux Lookout Flyers, which was cancelled due to bus problems, has been rescheduled for Nov. 3 at the Ice For Kids Arena.
The North Stars (6-1) lead the pack thus far, followed by the upstart Flyers (4-3), Ice Dogs (3-1), and Mustangs (1-0).
The expansion K&A Wolverines (Thunder Bay) sport a 1-6-1 record to sit one point ahead of the last-place Lakers, though having played three more games.
The Lakers will host a golf tournament at Heron Landing on Saturday (Oct. 10). The entry fee is $200 per team of four, and those interested can register through Brian Johnstone by calling the course at 274-5678.