Lakers on right side of close games

Dan Falloon

Objectively, the Fort Frances Lakers won both of their games last week, earning all four possible points while not allowing their rivals to gain any.
Subjectively, on the other hand, the local Junior ‘A’ squad knows it didn’t play up to its full potential, which is an area of focus for the team as it nears the one-third mark of the SIJHL regular season.
Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan certainly was glad to pull out the pair of 5-4 wins—one over the renamed Thunder Bay North Stars in the Lakehead on Wednesday and then over the Duluth Clydesdales here Friday night.
With the victories, the Lakers improved to 11-6-1 heading into last night’s home battle with the league-leading Wisconsin Wilderness (12-2-1).
Strachan said the performances were pretty easily defined. When the team was playing according to its gameplan, it was rolling.
But if not, watch out.
“When we did, we had success,” Strachan acknowledged.
“When we didn’t, we played inconsistently and didn’t make smart decisions, and goals came right back at us.”
Assistant captain Morgan McNeill reiterated the importance of sticking to the task at hand.
“It was just more when we play our game, we know what our strengths are,” he reasoned.
“When we get running around, we don’t play the way our coaches want us to.”
The most glaring example was in Friday night’s game when the Lakers let up a little bit in the third period, allowing the visiting Clydesdales to make the game a little more interesting than Strachan would have liked.
Trailing 5-2, Duluth tallied twice in the dying minutes.
First, Chris Palm’s wrister from the point got past Lakers’ goalie Tyler Ampe’s right foot with 1:36 left to go.
Then Joe Nelson tallied just 21 seconds later to bring the Clydesdales to within one, although the Lakers were able to fend off the pressure from there and notch the victory.
The late comeback by Duluth was a bit of a surprise considering the Lakers carried the play for the better part of the first two periods, outshooting the visitors 29-11 through 40 minutes.
But the Clydesdales were able to get the Lakers scrambled up in their own zone at times, and won the shots battle 11-4 in the third.
“In the third, we lost our focus, and it almost cost us the game,” Strachan noted.
“Key players on this team are making bad mistakes,” he added. “They say they’re going to change, but it’s not happening and it’s costing us.
“We’re lucky to squeak that one out,” he admitted. “Duluth played a hard-fought two minutes in the span they got the two goals.
“Hopefully we live and learn.”
Strachan also was left wanting by the team’s opening, although Fort Frances took the lead early in the first period when Jace Baldwin banged his sixth of the season past Duluth goalie Jeff Dunaisky at 6:53.
Marty McFadden put another power-play goal on the board after wristing a shot that handcuffed Dunaisky for his second of the year at 17:57.
“I was just planning on getting it on net and seeing what would happen, see if a forward would crash the net,” recalled McFadden, who levelled a Duluth player in the neutral zone minutes before the goal.
“And then it just trickled in.”
The Clydesdales took seven minors in the opening frame, handing the Lakers a huge opportunity to bury the game early.
But despite scoring twice with the man-advantage, the game was far from gift-wrapped.
“It was just a matter of us not making smart decisions in the first period,” Strachan remarked.
“In the second, we started to pressure them more and scored our second and third goals because of that.”
Captain Tyler Stevenson notched a pair 2:11 apart late in the second to bring his season total to 19 and the score to 4-0.
The latter goal chased Dunaisky and brought in Derek Robinson.
Duluth got on the board soon after when Josh Wentz whacked an Aaron Dusek set-up past Ampe with 3:56 left in the second.
Casey Eckman then cut the Lakers’ lead to a pair just 55 seconds into the third when a Dane Morin feed left him with an open cage in which to place the puck.
Matthew Caulfield restored the three-goal margin with just 3:13 to go before Duluth’s late surge.
In all, Ampe made 18 saves while Dunaisky had 23 and
Robinson six.
The game was marred by six player ejections, including Lakers’ defenceman Josh Scott and Duluth captain Tom Paine being tossed for hits from behind in the first period.
Lakers’ forwards Byron Katapaytuk and Brad Bienvenu later were tossed for fighting Clydesdales’ defencemen Jason Haydon and Mark Williams.
Strachan felt the Lakers were able to wear down the Clydesdales with only four defenders after the melee, but was more disappointed overall in losing the pair of big forwards.
“Those are two guys who can create offensive chances and room for other players,” he noted.
“I came off the ice and that’s the first thing Brad said to me: ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t be trading off with that guy.’”
Against the North Stars two nights earlier, Stevenson tallied twice while Jon Sinclair and Blake Boaz also scored in the first two periods.
Zach McCool, playing in just his second game of the season, notched the winner with just 3:35 to play.
“Zach’s a player that brings energy and emotion,” lauded Strachan.
“He’s a kid that may not bury a lot of points for us, but he’s a guy that pays the price all over the ice.
“Sometimes the hockey gods reward you for that.”
Strachan was a little concerned, however, about how McCool’s late goal gave the Lakers their longest lead of the game.
All four of the North Stars’ goals came within 2:55 of a Lakers’ tally.
Still, Strachan looked at the big picture, noting it’s a long season and there still are nearly 40 games left for his team to get everything straightened out.
One tweak he made a few games ago was to shuffle his lines in an attempt to get a grinder and skilled player on the ice together rather than keep similar types of players on the same lines.
Ryan Wildman responded nicely on Friday after sitting out Wednesday with some hard-working shifts where he controlled the puck in the Duluth zone. Caulfield, meanwhile, got his nose dirty early in the game to get a puck deep and later notched the eventual game-winner.
Strachan hopes to see the players click together again like in some games earlier in the season.
“It just would be nice to put everything together, and everyone play the system and game that we can play all the time,” he said.
“We’ve shown it in the past, and it’s been great to watch.
“We’ll get there. We’ll take baby steps,” Strachan added. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a 56-0 season and we’ve come a long way from last year.”
In spite of the team’s play, McNeill said the Lakers focused on improving in practice, and has kept a bright outlook.
“Everybody’s been pretty positive,” he enthused.
“We know what we need to do,” McNeill stressed. “We had a couple losses we didn’t really need [the previous] week, but if we play our game, those don’t really happen.”