Lakers play giant-killers to kick off new season

Dan Falloon

After finishing the pre-season with a perfect 5-0 record, the Fort Frances Lakers downplayed their success, stressing that the real games hadn’t started yet.
They have now but the Lakers won again, doubling the Fort William North Stars 4-2 here Friday night to kick off the SIJHL’s regular season.
The “icing on the cake,” according to Lakers’ captain Tyler Stevenson, is that the North Stars are the defending league champs and hold five of the last seven titles.
“We knew they’re the team to beat this year going in, and being the defending champs, it’s nice to knock ’em off early,” enthused Stevenson, who led the way with two goals and an assist on Jace Baldwin’s game-winner late in the second period.
Fort Frances came out a little bit flat in the first 20 minutes as Fort William hemmed the home team in its own zone for the first half of the period.
The physical play of former Fort Frances Jr. Sabre Dan Usiski especially gave the visitors a jolt.
However, Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan credited an extended stoppage in play, when North Stars’ goalie Guillaume Piche had to fix an equipment problem midway through the first, with slowing Fort William’s progress and allowing his team to regroup.
“It gave us a little break, and it wasn’t anything in particular that I said,” Strachan recalled, adding the veteran players tried to fire up the home side.
“There were probably a little bit of jitters and nervousness in the first eight minutes,” he noted. “[But] we rebounded, and the line of [Henry] Gutierrez had a great shift down in there zone and it lifted our bench.”
Soon after, assistant captain Blake Boaz fed Stevenson, who deked out Piche to give Fort Frances the 1-0 lead at the 11-minute mark.
“Piche was kind of cheating to his left,” Stevenson recalled. “I just had to make a little move, and I was lucky to be able to get it up and over his stick.”
The North Stars rallied quickly, however, as defenceman Kevin Hamel’s seeing-eye wrister from the point found its way through a crowd in front of Lakers’ goalie Jameson Shortreed to clang off the post and go in.
The goal came just seven seconds into a penalty to Lakers’ forward Zach McCool, whose hooking infraction was the home squad’s only sin of the night.
Stevenson then roared back, taking a feed in the slot from defenceman Cody Hasbargen on the power play and sliding a change-up past Piche to restore the lead at 16:25.
“I put my head down and shot,” noted Stevenson. “Piche was cheating again and I was looking to catch a corner.”
The Lakers then grabbed a 3-1 lead late in the second period after Fort William’s Matt Valley and Dan Usiski both were penalized at 19:18.
And Fort Frances made the most of the two-man advantage as Stevenson fired a cross-crease pass to Baldwin, who batted home the puck with just two seconds on the clock.
Both Stevenson and Baldwin credited the other with finishing off the play.
“It was nice not having to do much,” Baldwin remarked. “I just had to tap it in.
“It was a nice pass by Stevenson.”
“We tried it a couple times in the pre-season and couldn’t finish it,” noted Stevenson.
“We opened them up and he just found that soft spot.
“It was a nice finish by him.”
Stevenson said the timing of the tally was key, giving the Lakers momentum heading into the second intermission.
“That was huge, knowing that it could be a two-goal lead,” he said.
“We knew we had to move them around and take advantage of it,” he added. “That was big going into the third period.”
The North Stars came out flying in the third as Riley Marsh beat Shortreed at 6:22 to bring Fort William to within a goal, but Shortreed shut the door the rest of the way.
Byron Katapaytuk iced the victory by wiring an empty-netter from the Lakers’ end at 19:37.
Baldwin had a goal and an assist while defenceman Morgan McNeill also had a multi-point game with two assists.
Shortreed made 20 saves for the victory while Piche turned aside 24 Laker shots in a losing cause.
After the game, the Lakers congregated at centre ice and saluted the crowd of 592 in attendance.
With six points combined, the line of Stevenson, Boaz, and Baldwin is off to a blazing start, with Baldwin saying it’s a combo that has clicked since the opening of camp.
“There was an instant connection,” he enthused. “They’re good players to play with and they make you better.”
“It’s a good mix,” echoed Stevenson. “Those two work like crazy, so it’s pretty easy to play with them.
“You’ve just got to be open and they’ll do the work,” he added. “It’s nice to chip in.”
Immediately before his goal, Baldwin was mixing it up with a Fort William opponent, tangling sticks after the whistle.
Strachan noted the sandpaper was a necessary addition to Baldwin’s game after he played with Steinbach of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League last season.
“He had to play with an edge since he was more of an agitator and a hard worker,” Strachan said.
“If he brings a little bit of that, along with his skill level, he’s definitely going to contribute.”
Baldwin, meanwhile, embraces that element of his repertoire.
“I tried to establish something. It gets me in the game,” he reasoned.
On the defensive side of things, the Lakers limited Fort William’s attack to just 22 shots—a turnaround from last season where the defensive corps regularly allowed more than 30 shots through to Shortreed.
“It’s overall team concentration on our own end first, having that mentality,” Strachan stressed.
“[In] the second period, they [Fort William] got initial shots but they didn’t really have any other opportunity to get a rebound or a second or third chance on net.
“We’ve tried to drill it in them and they’re buying in, and slowly it’ll get to the point where it just becomes second nature for them,” Strachan added.
The Lakers’ leadership corps added a new member with the naming of Matt Caulfield as an assistant captain, joining Stevenson, Boaz, and McNeill with letters on their jerseys.
“The coaches talked about it and weighed the pros and cons of the three guys that were pretty tight in the nominations,” Strachan explained.
“Matt’s deserving,” he noted. “He’s a three-year veteran, and he’s been working his butt off in practice and showing that he’s a leader.”
Fort William lost six of its top seven scorers from last season but the North Stars always seem to be able to replenish their stocks—a trend that’s not lost on the Lakers.
“They’re still that same ‘work hard, get-in-your-face’ kind of team, but without all those big gunners up front,” noted Stevenson.
“They’re a good team. They work hard always.
“We won’t take them lightly,” he pledged.
Strachan added that with head coach Todd Howarth behind the North Stars’ bench, most things are possible given Howarth will instill a proper attitude among his troops.
“They’re not maybe as skilled as they have been in the past, but they have their coach’s mentality of hard work and going 100 percent,” Strachan remarked.
“It goes right down to the players and they all buy in.
“Whether they’re down or they’re up, they’re always working hard,” he noted.
“They played a good game tonight [Friday] but we limited their chances and Jameson made some big saves when he had to,” Strachan added.
The Lakers continued their season-opening homestand last night against the Dryden Ice Dogs (the score was not known as of press time).
Fort Frances’ next home game then comes this Saturday (Sept. 25) at 7:30 p.m. against the expansion Wisconsin Wilderness.
Saturday’s game is the back end of a home-and-home series as the Lakers will visit Spooner on Friday for their first-ever regular-season meeting.