Lakers looking to end first half of SIJHL season on a high note

Jamie Mountain

It’s the fine details that can make it or break it for a team and the Fort Frances Lakers learned that firsthand last week.
The squad lost all three of its road games, with head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan noting that it was the little things that cost them each time.
After losing 5-3 to the host Red Lake Miners last Tuesday, Fort Frances dropped back-to-back games by scores of 4-2 and 5-2 to SIJHL-leading Thunder Bay North Stars on Friday and Saturday night at the Fort William Gardens.
“We played a solid first forty minutes of each game and then I am not sure if fatigue is playing a part, frustration or just mental pressure,” said Strachan, whose team saw their record fall to 11-14-1 and still sit fifth in the six-team league.
A four-goal flurry four-and-a-half minutes apart in the third period broke open a tie game as the North Stars (19-7-2) claimed the 5-2 win on Saturday night at the Fort William Gardens.
After a scoreless first period, Thunder Bay broke the deadlock 4:21 into the second as Alex Erwin deflected a Logan Milhalcin point shot home during a man advantage.
The Lakers evened it just over 10 minutes later as Nakoda Thunderchief fed Matthew Dyck in the high slot, as he then proceeded to rip home his third of the season.
Then in the third, the North Stars erupted for their offensive barrage beginning with Cody Bruchkowski connecting at 3:39.
A couple of shifts later, the hosts tacked on another moments into a power play as Jett Leishman was left with a tap-in.
Bruchkowski then came right back at 7:27 as he wired in his second of the evening, and SIJHL-leading 29th tally, to extend it to 4-1.
Thunder Bay then chased Lakers’ goalie Alex Bugeja 50 seconds after that in favour of backup Dean Buchholz when Enrico Bozac slid home a low attempt.
Fort Frances rounded out the scoring with seven-and-a-half minutes to go off a quality snap shot from the point from Ben Hoefler as he converted on a power play chance.
Jordan Smith made 27 stops to earn the win.
Bugeja allowed five against on 35 chances in taking the loss while Buchholz handled all four attempts he faced in relief.
“It wasn’t like we played bad hockey, we just made some little mistakes that led to giving them offensive opportunities and ultimately costing us the game,” said Strachan.
“It is a trend that plagued us through our three games this past week. Our opponents persevered and we didn’t.”
On Friday night, Bruchkowksi scored twice late in the third period to help the North Stars double the Lakers 4-2.
Thunder Bay opened the scoring near the nine-minute mark of the first period when Nikolas Campbell stuffed in a Joel Willan feed.
But Fort Frances countered with the equalizer at 15:50 when Matthieu Harrold’s attempt from the right side found its way through North Stars’ goalie Seth McKay.
The North Stars regained the lead early in the second frame as defenceman Kyler Belluz bagged his second of the season on a shot from the right point.
Answering back again, the Lakers drew level once more deep into the period thanks to Cooper Witherspoon, who powered his way past a Thunder Bay defender and slid a low shot under McMay for his third of the year.
The North Stars opted to replace McKay in favour of Smith to begin the third.
It stayed tied at 2-2 until late in regulation when Brown sent a crisp cross-ice pass over to a waiting Bruchkowksi, who promptly ripped the game-winner past Buchholz.
Bruchkowski then salted away the victory in the final minute as he was sent in on a breakaway during a man advantage and snapped a shot in at 19:04 to help round out the scoring.
Smith made three stops in relief to record the win and assisted on the evening’s final marker, while McKay handled 24-of-26 attempts he faced.
Buchholz was busy in defeat for the Lakers, making an impressive 51 saves on the night.
“I liked the play of Dean Buchholz. [He was] steady, calm, made solid saves, good rebound control and poise,” Strachan lauded of the 20-year-old, who the Lakers acquired from the Lindsay Muskies (OJHL) back on Dec. 1 for a player development fee.
“I believe Matty Harrold’s game is growing each and every game, he is looking more confident. I also have liked the way Cooper Witherspooon has played as of late, creating offence, but someone we can rely on to be working hard and playing a good 200-foot game.”
On the injury front, the Lakers are still without local forwards Nick Hahkala and Ethan Carlson Jourdain, who are dealing with upper-body ailments.
Fellow local forward Jake Barker also remains out with a leg injury while defenceman Keon Fox (upper-body) is also on the shelf.
The Lakers were slated to resume action last night when they hosted the expansion Wisconsin Lumberjacks (5-17-2) at the Ice For Kids Arena, with the outcome not known as of press time.
Fort Frances then will cap the week with a home-and-home series against the fourth-place Thief River Falls Norskies (13-8-2).
Thief River Falls will host the Lakers in the opener tomorrow night at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Fort Frances then will welcome the Norskies at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night at the Ice For Kids Arena to complete the set in their final game before the holiday break.