They’re five nice wins that the Fort Frances Lakers would love to have in the proverbial SIJHL bank.
Being five exhibition games, none of them will, of course. But the Lakers still are hoping that all that practice (their five games were more than any other SIJHL rival) will provide a solid base on which to start the regular season here this Friday night against the defending champion Fort William North Stars.
“It was fun while it lasted, but it’s a fresh start and whatever we did the last couple weeks won’t mean anything now,” noted Lakers’ captain Tyler Stevenson, who tallied five goals and one assist in four pre-season games.
“We’ve just got to keep working hard in practice each day,” echoed assistant captain Blake Boaz.
“[Head coach] Wayne [Strachan] talked to us,” he noted. “We can’t get too light and relaxed. We’ve got to keep working each day.
“The pre-season and the regular season are two different things,” Boaz stressed.
Over the past week, the Lakers pounded Dryden 7-1 here last Wednesday, beat host Sioux Lookout 4-1 on Friday, and then tamed the Wisconsin Wilderness 5-2 here Sunday afternoon.
“It’s nice to start the season on the winning side, and things going in the right direction is definitely a positive for us,” head coach Wayne Strachan acknowledged after Sunday’s win.
“Guys are pretty excited in the room, and they’re working hard.
“They earned it,” he added. “They earned everything they got through the pre-season.”
If the exhibition record is any indication of how the team will fare during the regular season, it seems the squad will be able to put up some gaudy numbers on the scoreboard given Fort Frances outscored its opponents 27-11 in five pre-season games.
Stevenson was one of six Lakers who put up more than one goal during the pre-season while 12 different Lakers netted at least one goal. Additionally, 21 different Lakers notched at least one point.
A big part of that was the power-play, where all players were afforded the opportunity to showcase some offence. And, according to Strachan, many delivered.
The Lakers had multiple power-play goals in four of the five pre-season games, and were 10-of-37 overall—good for a 27 percent clip.
“Everyone’s had the opportunity to play, and everyone’s taken advantage of it,” Strachan lauded.
“It’s good to see that if we need to, we can use almost everyone on the power-play, so it’s a good situation for us,” he added.
Strachan felt several Lakers came into training camp in better shape than last season, including Stevenson, who tallied 49 points in 2009-10 to lead the team after sniper Colton Kennedy was traded in January.
As well, he noted assistant captain Blake Boaz and defensive specialist Matthew Caulfield look primed to make significant jumps this season.
“Last year, they had a lot to learn. And I think through the off-season, all three of them guys trained a lot and obviously came back in game shape,” lauded Strachan.
“We’ve got to rely on Tyler to be our go-to guy and put some points up for us, and Blake Boaz had assumed the role of being on one of the top lines and he’s really filling the offensive side of his game,” he noted.
Caulfield, meanwhile, notched a pair of goals in the pre-season—the same number he scored in 18 regular-season games after coming here in a trade with Dryden.
As well, Caulfield notched the overtime winner on a breakaway in the Lakers’ pre-season opener, with Strachan saying Caulfield’s shot had improved vastly over the off-season.
“I don’t know if he took any breaks,” Strachan remarked. “He was busy always training and going to shooting camps.
“He’s a guy that we’re going to count on to play a little more of a defensive role, but any help he can contribute offensively is definitely good to see.”
Both Stevenson and Boaz said they’ve put in extra work to ensure they’re up to the grind of a 56-game season.
“We talked about last year, going through all those games, and we think we have a chance of actually winning it this year, so that put a little more fire in our bellies,” said Stevenson.
“We know what to expect.”
Defensively, the Lakers’ goaltending trio appear to be rolling heading into the regular season.
Reigning SIJHL goalie-of-the-year Jameson Shortreed will get the start Friday night against Fort William but Strachan feels confident in his two other options.
After allowing five goals in a wild 6-5 win over Dryden, Tyler Ampe settled in and allowed only one more in the 60 minutes he split over two games while Derrick Peitsh, a Manitoba native acquired last week, allowed just two goals while splitting time with Ampe.
“Through camp, he [Ampe] obviously earned a spot,” noted Strachan.
“In Dryden, I think he’d maybe like to take that game back,” Strachan added. “He was probably a little nervous, but in the last two outings, he’s played well.”
Stevenson and Boaz both were quick to say that even though the Lakers were able to win four of the five games by three goals or more, they expect the gap between them and their opponents will narrow as the season goes on.
The pair recalled last season, where the team struggled early but then found its groove as the season progressed, and reasoned the same thing could happen with the other teams in the league.
“It’ll be competitive, but I think both of them [Sioux Lookout and Dryden] are probably in a rebuilding year, which gives us the upper edge that maybe at the end of the year, we can win it,” noted Stevenson.
“They’ll all get better as the year goes on, so we can’t take anyone lightly this year,” he warned.
“The team that we played won’t be the team that’s there come Christmastime,” agreed Boaz.
The North Stars no doubt will be seen as a serious threat to repeat despite losing many key cogs, including the SIJHL’s three leading scorers—Trevor Gamache, Ryan Magill, and Devlin native Jordan Davis—during the off-season.
“The North Stars are the reigning champs and they’re the team we want to catch, or start ahead of, to get the season rolling here,” reasoned Strachan.
“They’re the team that usually is around the top of the league and if you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to be ready to play hard and get through them,” he stressed.
Fort William opted to take a western swing for its exhibition activity, registering a 1-2 record against the Portage Terriers and Winnipeg South Blues of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Stevenson was pleased to be able to see the true measuring stick of the league served up right away.
“It’s exciting to go up against them [Fort William] in the first game after being the champs last year,” he enthused.
“I think we’ll see if we can come out and give ’em a game and take ’em.”
Both Stevenson and Boaz were bullish on the Lakers’ chances this season, citing good vibes in both the dressing room and out on the ice.
“It’s good. Everyone’s excited. It should be a lot of fun,” Stevenson remarked.
“It’s completely a 180,” he added. “We know who we are going in and we feel we can compete with anyone this year.”
“Everyone’s welcoming everyone, so it’s been good,” chipped in Boaz.
“Last year, there was a bit of frustration at times, but this year it’s a positive attitude in there.”
Against Wisconsin on Sunday, the Lakers were able to press Wilderness goalie John McLean for much of the first period, and finally broke through on the power-play at 16:11 when Boaz wired a shot past McLean.
The lead grew 2:46 later when Jon Sinclair knocked one past McLean for his fifth goal of the pre-season.
The former Fort Frances Jr. Sabre later added an assist to give him a team-leading eight points.
Wisconsin struck back in the second period, tying the game against Peitsh. Austin Adduono accounted for both goals, tapping home short-range shots at 1:49 and 7:03.
But the Lakers took the lead for good late in the frame with the man advantage as Henry Gutierrez took a Phil Jennrich feed and ripped home his third goal in as many games at 17:16.
Jennrich then scored the Lakers’ third power-play goal of the game at 12:57 of the third, deflecting a Marty McFadden shot past McLean.
Byron Katapaytuk rounded out the scoring when he knocked home his third goal of the pre-season into an empty net.
Peitsh made 13 saves in his half of the game while Ampe stopped all 12 shots he saw.
McLean turned aside 34 for Wisconsin.
In Friday night’s 4-1 win over host Sioux Lookout, the Lakers responded to a Casey Mertens’ power-play goal at 13:46 of the first.
Sinclair and Stevenson tallied 1:11 apart early in the second, with Gutierrez adding some insurance at 8:09.
Katapaytuk added the empty-netter with 41 seconds left in regulation time.
Ampe made 16 saves that night, allowing the one goal, while Peitsch was flawless on the 17 shots he faced.
The Flyers’ tandem of Jordan Giguere and Jesse Wilkins turned aside 37 of 40 attempts.