The Fort Frances Lakers are learning what it takes to win on a nightly basis in the SIJHL.
Sometimes the lessons are tough, as the Lakers found out over the weekend as they dropped a pair of games, by the identical 4-3 score on Friday and Saturday night, to the Dryden GM Ice Dogs as they swept the home-and-home series.
Both games saw the squad having to claw back from early deficits and it’s something they’ll be looking to rectify moving forward this season.
“It’s definitely something we need to address, although I thought we had a pretty good start and we were energized and controlled the play early on,” Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan said of having to try to come back again on Saturday night against the Ice Dogs in Dryden.
“In Friday’s game, they competed harder and were in our face–we didn’t adjust well until later in the game.
“We definitely need to man up and battle to have more success,” he stressed.
“Game two, it wasn’t our start that hurt us. We jumped on them, we just didn’t capitalize on their mistakes, and they did on ours, to grab the lead.”
Malcolm Huemmert’s goal on a partial breakaway 13:38 into the third period proved to be the game-winner as the Ice Dogs (3-1) edged the Lakers by a 4-3 margin for a second straight night on Saturday at Dryden’s Memorial Arena.
Former Sioux Lookout Warriors’ defenceman Ben Forbes’ left point shot found a way in for his first SIJHL tally at 14:28 before Evan Pakkala knocked one in from the slot before the session was complete to make it 2-0 for the hosts after 20 minutes.
But the Lakers (2-2) responded with two of their own in the middle stanza, beginning with MacKenzie Flett sending Stone Stelzl in all alone on Ice Dogs’ starter Jacob Anthony as he made no mistake in putting the visitors on the board at 7:27 to trim it to 2-1.
Flett added another assist later in the period as he got it up to Nick Swain–an honourable mention for this week’s SIJHL Play It Again Sports player-of-the-week–who bulled his way along the boards before cutting in and snapping home the equalizer at 13:42.
Heading to the third, Dryden’s Gavyn Galloway forced a turnover at his own blue-line, then darted down the ice on a breakaway and went top shelf on Lakers’ goalie Dylan Kosik to put Dryden back ahead 3-2.
Huemmert’s tally then put the Ice Dogs up by two but Fort Frances did get one more off a Flett blast that hit teammate Noah Loveday in front before Cooper Witherspoon pushed it closer to where a waiting Praveen Dhaliwal jammed in his first league marker with 3:22 remaining to make it 4-3.
However, the hosts held on from there to secure the narrow weekend home-and-home sweep of the Lakers.
Anthony made 37 saves to nab the win for Dryden while Kosik faced 39 shots to take the loss in his SIJHL debut for Fort Frances.
“We showed the ability and character to battle back, we defended stronger in game two,” said Strachan.
“When we played at our level and pace, I felt we created good offensive opportunities. Our penalty kill was solid when called upon.”
On Friday night, Justin Pitari scored his first two SIJHL goals to lead the Ice Dogs to the narrow win at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Pitari opened the scoring just past the seven-minute mark of the first as he redirected a right point shot from teammate Amraj Gill past Lakers’ goalie Alex Bugeja.
The visitors then doubled their cushion early in the second frame as Nolan Marshall knocked in a feed from close range off the stick of Huemmert on a mini 2-on-1 opportunity.
Former Warriors’ sniper Cortez Favot then put Dryden up by three when he deflected home a shot from Brandon Marshall that was fired from just inside the blueline for his first SIJHL marker.
But the Lakers got goals from Kaleb Bruyere and Swain four-and-half minutes apart later in the frame to pull within a goal.
Swain had his initial breakaway chance stopped by Anthony but Bruyere followed the play up and fired one home to trim it to 3-1.
Shortly after a faceoff win, Swain then rifled a shot past Anthony to make it a one-goal contest.
But not to be outdone, Pitari picked up his second of the night in the final minute as he banged in the rebound of Evan Pakkala’s shot at the top of the crease as Dryden carried a 4-2 cushion into the third.
The third period saw Michael Chapman pick up his third assist of the evening for the Lakers as his long pass found Noah Loveday on a breakaway, where he made no mistake on his chance in firing a shot over Anthony’s arm to bring the hosts back to within one at 1:36.
Despite a great late push in the final minutes with Bugeja pulled for the extra-attacker, the Lakers couldn’t equalize and suffered their first loss of the season.
Anthony made 35 saves to nab the win while Bugeja was solid in defeat, turning aside 33 shots and making a number of crucial saves throughout the game.
“I definitely liked the end of our game, I thought from about the midway point of the second, right until the end, we played to our capability,” Strachan said after Friday’s loss on home ice.
“We had our level of speed and, obviously, we created a lot more opportunities and just couldn’t buy a couple of goals through the third period there.
“They’re a team that works hard for 60 minutes and to spot them a three-goal lead, with the goaltending they have, it’s definitely gonna be tough to battle back,” he conceded.
“We gave a valiant effort in doing it, I thought we were the better team through the latter part but consistency is probably the biggest thing that comes to my mind throughout the hockey game.
“We weren’t consistent in playing at our level, we weren’t consistent enough in battling in front of our net and we weren’t consistent enough in getting to their net to battle for some of those loose pucks,” Strachan admitted.
“We’ll have to live and learn from it and move on.”
The Lakers will look to rebound in their next game tonight, when they head to Spooner to take on the expansion Wisconsin Lumberjacks (0-4-1) for the first time this season.
Fort Frances then will cap the week on Friday night when they head to Dryden for another showdown with the Ice Dogs.
“It’s a game we need to be focused for and prepared to play,” Strachan said of tonight’s contest against the Lumberjacks.
“It’s going to be exciting to go back down to Spooner to play and they are a team that has battled hard thus far through the early part of the season.
“It’s a great place to play,” he lauded. “Obviously with losing the [Minnesota] Iron Rangers for a year, it is huge that Doug Lein and his group stepped up to join the league and they are doing things right to be a successful team on and off the ice.
“The more stable franchises the SIJHL can attract only strengthens what everyone is striving to achieve,” Strachan reasoned.