The Lakers have taken advantage of a favourable home schedule to start the 2010-11 season.
The local Junior ‘A’ squad has won four of five games in the friendly confines of the Ice For Kids Arena after edging Dryden 3-2 last Tuesday night and then blanking Sioux Lookout 4-0 on Saturday.
On the other hand, the Lakers (4-3) are having a tough time getting going on the road so far, having lost both games away from here, including Friday’s 5-4 loss at Sioux Lookout.
In both those games, the squad fell behind 2-0 and then saw valiant comeback attempts fall just short.
The road struggles haven’t been a big issue given the Lakers kicked off the season with seven of nine games at home. But after this week’s pair here (including last night’s game versus the expansion Duluth Clydesdales and then one this Friday against Fort William), Fort Frances will hit the road for four-straight.
Head coach Wayne Strachan is encouraged that his charges are showing signs of progress dealing with the pressure of a home crowd—even if they’re not exactly where they need to be.
Slow starts have been a problem for the Lakers, but Strachan felt that first periods at home really have come along over the past week.
“Our last two home games, definitely, yes,” Strachan remarked after Saturday’s game. “Last night [Friday in Sioux Lookout], our first period really hurt us.”
“We talked today about giving up two points last night.
“Were we at our best? No,” he admitted. “But throughout most of this game, we did play pretty solid.”
In general, the Lakers’ best players have performed up to the task.
Tyler Stevenson, Byron Katapaytuk, and Jace Baldwin—who sit first, second, and third in SIJHL scoring—had big weeks, with Stevenson recording five points while the other two had four.
In goal, Tyler Ampe earned both wins, including turning aside all 30 shots he faced here Saturday to register his first shutout as a Laker, as well as the team’s first goose egg of the season.
Katapaytuk opened the scoring Saturday on the power play by burying a shot past Flyers’ goalie Jordan Giguere at 8:38 of the first after the puck came right to him following a Cody Hasbargen drive that ricocheted off a Flyers’ defenceman.
It was Katapaytuk’s fifth of the young season.
Baldwin then fooled Giguere with the man-advantage later in the second for his third tally of the year.
Baldwin had lofted a harmless-looking shot towards the net. But with Lakers’ forwards in front, Giguere was playing a redirection that never came and the puck beat him untouched at 14:29 of the second.
Fort Frances began to put its foot down early in the third as Davis Smith unleashed a howitzer just 37 seconds into the frame for his second goal of the season.
Stevenson added the icing on the doughnut, tapping in a tic-tac-toe feed from Blake Boaz via Baldwin.
Giguere finished with 25 saves on the night.
“We had solid goaltending and did the little things that it takes to win hockey games—being smart in our own end, getting pucks deep, and getting our forecheck going,” Strachan noted.
“We deserved the win,” he added. “We had many more scoring chances that we could have buried, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Most importantly, Strachan felt the Lakers came to play early—a welcome reprieve from sluggish performances that were a bit of a tripping point leading into last week.
“Tonight we came out with the lead and just built on it through the second,” he lauded after Saturday’s game.
“Our power play came through with a couple of goals through the first couple of periods.
“Was I happy with our game? No,” Strachan continued. “But we did put a lot of rubber on their goalie and rose to the occasion, and they fought out to get the victory.”
The Flyers had a much finer goaltending performance in Friday night’s game in which Jesse Wilkins turned aside an astonishing 51 shots in the 5-4 win.
Wilkins’ offence gave him some support in the first period as Chase Dobranski and Brett Ferguson tallied 2:21 apart late in the frame.
Stevenson and Henry Gutierrez, netting his first goal of the season, responded with tallies 40 seconds apart midway through the second to bring the Lakers back into a tie.
But Dobranski struck for a short-handed marker at 14:57 to put the Flyers in the lead for good, then Galen Matyjanka followed with a goal at 19:06 to double Sioux Lookout’s lead.
The Flyers chased Lakers’ starting goalie Jameson Shortreed early in the third when Ian Alcock made it 5-2.
The switch from Shortreed to Ampe sparked the Lakers a bit as Jaret Leclair tallied his first at 7:05 before Stevenson notched a last-minute power-play marker at 19:23.
But Wilkins shut the door the rest of the way.
Shortreed stopped 23 shots in his time of work while Ampe turned away all five he saw.
Strachan was disappointed his Lakers fell into a bit of a trap against the last-place Flyers, getting away from the winning formula early and not recovering it until later in the game.
“[It was] what I would call playing to their level,” he explained. “If we play at our level, we could have success against that team.
“We tried our hardest to come back and we ran out of time.”
Strachan even downplayed Wilkins’ effort, noting that while the quantity of shots the 17-year-old faced was high, the quality wasn’t quite so lofty.
“I wouldn’t say it was the game of his life,” Strachan said of Wilkins. “A lot of chances we had, we maybe waited too long to shoot the puck, or just didn’t have the traffic in front of the net we needed, or guys going to the net to get that rebound.
“Sometimes you’re going to have those games,” he reasoned.
The Lakers’ power play also continued to click last week, converting four of 16 chances to now operate at a 30 percent clip.
The man-advantage has been an important part of the Lakers’ offence so far. Ten of their 23 goals have come with the extra attacker, with five coming from Stevenson and three from Baldwin.
As well, the only game in which the man-advantage has not counted was in a 1-0 loss to Dryden here back on Sept. 21, which remains the team’s only home loss to date.