Lakers head into break on winning note

Lucas Punkari

What a difference a week has made for the Fort Frances Lakers.
After a pair of dismal losses to the Sioux Lookout Flyers and Dryden Ice Dogs, the Lakers head into the Christmas break basking in the glow of a three-game winning streak.
Their latest victory was a 6-1 triumph over the visiting Iron Range Ironheads on Monday night, which came on the heels of a two-game sweep of the host Thunder Bay North Stars over the weekend.
“I was a little worried going into the weekend how we would we respond after a couple weeks of not playing up to our potential,” Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan admitted.
“But over the weekend, the guys worked hard and put in possibly the two best efforts of the year in back-to-back games.
“And tonight [Monday], we started to roll after they [Iron Range] scored on us in the first period.
“All in all, I’m much happier with having three wins in a row going into a little break here, and I think we’ve put ourselves in a good place for the second half of the [season],” Strachan added.
The Lakers (22-8-4) now hold an 11-point lead over the third-place North Starts in the SIJHL standings while sitting seven behind defending champion Wisconsin, although the Wilderness hold three games in hand.
“This puts us in a pretty good position, and we still have a lot of games to go against Wisconsin,” noted Lakers’ captain Blake Boaz.
“Fate is in our hands, and it’s going to come down to those games against Wisconsin as to if we are going to catch them or not,” he added.
Heading into last weekend’s two-game series in Thunder Bay, the Lakers had fallen into a slump—having lost their previous two contests and with just one win in their last five games.
But any of those issues seemed to disappeared against the North Stars as they skated to a 5-2 win Friday night and a 6-3 triumph the following evening at the Fort William Gardens.
“As a team, I thought those were our two best games of the entire season,” Boaz remarked.
“We’ve had some games where individuals peaked and got a couple key goals in the third, and at the start of the year we [had] third-period comebacks happening left and right.
“But in those two games in Thunder Bay, they were both 60-minute efforts from the whole team where everybody chipped in whatever their role was, whether it was scoring or shutting people down,” he stressed.
Another key contributor to the wins over the North Stars was goalie Tyler Ampe, who stopped a combined 62 shots over the weekend.
“I thought that after the first goal that he allowed early in the first period on Friday, he settled in and was the Tyler Ampe that we need,” Strachan said.
“I know I’ve been kind of hard on him as of late, and I’ve maybe called him out in the paper, as well, but he responded on the weekend in the way that we needed him to,” Strachan added.
Jaret Leclair led the way offensively Friday night with a goal and two assists, with Henry Gutierrez, Bryan Broders, Jordan Christianson, and Adam Wensley also scoring.
Saturday’s victory saw Byron Katapaytuk pace the team with three assists while Broders netted a pair of goals.
Christianson, Gutierrez, Ryan Wildman, and Brandon Fehd added singles.
Then on Monday night at the Ice For Kids Arena here, the Lakers exploded for four goals in the first period after allowing a marker by Ironhead Casey Skolnik near the midway point of the frame.
“Our game plan was the same as the last time we played them [a 5-1 win in Chisholm on Dec. 4], which was to use puck movement and puck control to our advantage,” Strachan explained.
“I thought maybe in the first part of the game we might of been a little bit relaxed,” he admitted.
“But as soon as they [Iron Range] scored their goal, we responded by playing a simple game, moving the puck well, and [Ryan] Wildman tipped the puck in [off a Jon Carlson point shot].
“That just lifted the entire bench, and on the very next shift we were all over them and we just continued to build off of that,” Strachan added.
Leading the way in that victory was Boaz, who scored a pair of goals thanks to the help of linemates Leclair and Merritt Rysavy.
Wensley and Broders added a goal and an assist each.
Monday’s game also was the third that Broders has dressed for the Lakers since he was acquired in a trade with Sioux Lookout earlier this month, and he’s made a quick impact so far by scoring four goals and registering an assist.
“I’m still not quite 100 percent yet [coming off a right ankle injury], so I can’t do as much as I would like out there,” he remarked.
“But it’s nice to be burying the chances that I am getting.
“It just feels good to be winning games, though, and I want to go on a run right after Christmas, too,” added the 19-year-old from Eagan, Mn.
“Starting in that second game against Thunder Bay, I think we began to see him [Broders] play more like the guy we saw in Sioux Lookout that was able to get a lot of points against us,” Strachan noted.
“He has an ability to put the puck in the net that any team wants to have, and as long as he stays healthy and continues to work hard, he should chip in and help us out nicely.”
Katapaytuk also scored in Monday’s triumph while back-up goalie Tanner Hamilton turned aside 27 shots to earn the win.
Following the Christmas break, the Lakers will hit the road next Wednesday (Dec. 28) for another clash with the Thunder Bay North Stars.
“They will be hungry and looking to get a little revenge at us after this past weekend,” Strachan warned.
“Knowing their coach [Todd Howarth] and the intense guy that he is, he’ll have those guys motivated and ready to play us when we get there,” said Strachan.
“But we just need to go in with the same attitude that we had last weekend.
“If we can play hard, keep the game simple, and capitalize on our opposition’s mistakes like we did last time we played, we should put ourselves in a good chance to have some success,” he reasoned.
The Lakers then will return home for their annual exhibition contest against the Fort Frances Thunderhawks senior men’s team, which is slated for next Thursday (Dec. 29) at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.