It appears–at least early on–as though the Fort Frances Lakers would like to put two-straight years of finishing fifth in the SIJHL standings behind them.
The Lakers kicked off the 2018-19 regular season in impressive fashion over the weekend with pair of road wins.
Kirk Coppock scored in overtime Friday night to help Fort Frances pull out a 4-3 win over the two-time defending champion GM Ice Dogs in Dryden before cruising to a 6-2 romp over the host Minnesota Iron Rangers the following night.
“Can’t complain about starting the season off with two wins,” said Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan.
“It’s definitely a good confidence-booster and we achieved our first goal of winning Game 1.
“However, we have a lot of work ahead of us as we need to work on some areas of our game and continue to grow as a team together,” he stressed.
The Lakers now have shifted their focus to their home-opener this Friday, when they’ll host the Iron Rangers at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Fans are urged to arrive early as there will be a special pre-game ceremony to honour the Humboldt Broncos.
Fort Frances then will welcome the Thunder Bay North Stars (1-0-1-0) on Saturday for another 7:30 p.m. start.
“Against Minnesota, we will have to be prepared, focused on our game, and come ready to play 60 minutes of Laker hockey,” Strachan said.
“Saturday will be a good test against a high-powered offence,” he added.
“We will have to be ready to skate, win battles, compete, and stay out of the penalty box.”
As for the season-opening road games last weekend, Jaedin Ness had a pair of goals, including the game-winner, and assisted on another while Ethan Knutsen dished out four assists to pace the Lakers’ victory Saturday night in Hoyt Lakes.
After a scoreless first period, Fort Frances exploded for four second-period goals to take a commanding 4-0 lead.
Brett Hahkala opened the scoring 1:18 into the second before Ness added power-play and even-strength markers to give the visitors a three-goal cushion.
Bryce Kopp’s first SIJHL goal for the Iron Rangers with just under two minutes to go in the frame trimmed it to 3-1, but Dane Bateman connected just before the horn during a late man-advantage opportunity to put the Lakers back up by three.
After Colton Bodnar made it 5-1 with a short-handed effort in the third, Minnesota’s Lukas Lundgren scored on a power play to cut into the lead.
But Coppock came through with a late tally to cap the scoring.
Tyler Szturm earned the win in his SIJHL debut for the Lakers, finishing with 16 saves on 17 shots in just over 46 minutes of work.
Matt Booth handled five-of-six attempts he saw in third-period relief.
The previous night, Coppock’s goal 43 seconds into overtime was the difference as the Lakers eked out a 4-3 win over the Ice Dogs in the season-opener for both teams at Dryden’s Memorial Arena.
Dryden outshot Fort Frances 13-8 in the opening 20 minutes and were rewarded with the night’s opening tally courtesy of captain Trey Palermo.
The Lakers countered in the second frame by notching a pair of markers, beginning with Brett Hahkala’s first SIJHL goal at 1:26 before Chase Robideau’s initial league effort put the visitors in front 2-1 three-and-a-half minutes later.
Evan Walls drew Dryden level early in the third, only to see MacKenzie Flett put Fort Frances back on top at 3-2 at 4:35.
But the Ice Dogs answered once more, with Walls notching his second of the period with 7:17 left to send the game to extra time.
In overtime, the Lakers prevailed when Nate Drobnick fired the puck around the end boards from his own zone over to Ness, who then sent a cross-ice pass to Coppock on a 2-on-1.
Coppock darted down the left side and wired the game-winner past Ice Dogs’ goalie Jordan Wilde to give the visitors their first opening-night win since 2015.
Booth was stellar in goal for the Lakers that night, making 41 saves to earn the win while Wilde faced 23 attempts in taking the loss.
“We gave up too many shots in Dryden,” Strachan conceded. “Both games, we had a bad habit of circling and skating by checks rather than through them.
“We didn’t control our emotions well in the Minnesota game and took far too many penalties,” he added.
But it was mostly good things that Strachan saw from his players against both Dryden and Minnesota, including battling back hard after a poor first period against the Ice Dogs.
“Versus Dryden, I liked our push-back after period one, and I liked our character throughout the game as we never gave in and we believed we could have success all night,” Strachan said.
“In the Minnesota game, we controlled the play and the puck well throughout the hockey game,” he noted, adding “both games our penalty kill was sound.”
As for players who have caught Strachan’s eye through the first two games of the season, he said Ness and Hahkala both have had particularly strong performances so far.
“We actually broke them up for this weekend due to some injuries we have but both were big parts of our success in both games,” he lauded.
“Brett got us going in both games score-wise and ‘Nesser’ scored some beauties to help preserve the win on Saturday.”
Another player Strachan felt stood out over the weekend was Booth.
“I liked how Matt Booth played on Friday,” he remarked. “He was solid, square to pucks, and battled hard.
“MacKenzie Flett played well on the back end in both games [and] I though Dane Bateman played well versus the Rangers,” he added.