The Fort Frances Lakers may have been the underdog heading into their best-of-five quarter-final playoff series against the English River Miners, but they sure didn’t make it look that way.
English River (28-23-1-4) finished the regular season in fourth place, 22 points ahead of the fifth-place Lakers (15-32-3-6).
But that was all moot when Adam Withers scored 8:02 into overtime to lift the Lakers to a 2-1 win over the Miners in Game 4 of their best-of-five quarter-final playoff series Monday night at the Ice For Kids Arena.
With the victory, the Lakers claimed the series 3-1 and now advance to face the first-place Dryden GM Ice Dogs (40-8-6-2) in the best-of-seven semi-finals that kick off on Friday night in Dryden at 7:30 p.m.
“We knew it wasn’t gonna be easy,” said Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan after the series-clinching win.
“The Miners are a good hockey team, they finished some 22 points ahead of us in the standings.
“But it’s a second season and things can happen,” reasoned Strachan about the playoffs.
“I give a lot of credit to the guys in the room,” he enthused. “They believed in themselves, they believed they could do it, and they set out to do it.”
A big factor in Fort Frances’ success in the series against English River was the stalwart play of goalie Ismael Ralsten.
The 19-year-old compiled a 1.45 GAA along with a .954 save percentage through the four games to help his squad advance.
“He gave us a chance to win every game,” lauded Strachan.
“Really, any game could have went either way throughout the whole series and he stood tall and made some huge glove saves tonight.
“He’s been focused,” he added. “He’s played with poise and kept his game simple, not giving up a lot of rebound opportunities, seeing the puck well, battling when he did it.”
The Miners are a chippy team and always did their best to try to throw Ralsten off his game, but he didn’t let that bother him.
“It’s definitely some of the best games I’ve ever been a part of,” beamed Ralsten about the series.
“They didn’t shy away from trying to get me off my game any way they could, and they were doing that the whole series.
“That’s just the way they play and that’s how they win games and that’s why they were successful in the regular season,” he reasoned.
The Lakers and Ice Dogs squared off 11 times during the regular season, with Dryden taking the set 10-1.
The two clubs also met each other in the semi-finals last season, with the Ice Dogs winning it in four-straight games.
Strachan knows just how big of a challenge the SIJHL juggernauts will be for his squad.
“They finished in first place for a reason, they got a lot of firepower,” he warned.
“They have a very good defensive core, a veteran defensive core, and they have good goaltending.
“So, we’re gonna have to make it kind of the same series as we did against the Miners,” he reasoned.
“Tight-checking, try to keep it close and one-goal games and when we get those opportunities to exploit them on their breakdowns, we need to take advantage of it.”
The remainder of the semi-final schedule against the Ice Dogs will be announced over the coming days.
As for the series against the Miners, the squads split the first two games at the Cochenour Arena with the Lakers taking Game 1 4-2 last Wednesday before English River rebounded with a 4-1 victory of its own the following night.
The series then shifted to the Ice For Kids Arena here for Games 3 and 4.
Fort Frances native Ian Tookenay scored just 1:21 into overtime to lift the host Fort Frances Lakers to a 2-1 victory on Saturday night.
After a scoreless first period, the Miners opened the scoring 7:46 into the second on Matt O’Neill’s goal.
That held up until early in the third when Jack Bernie beat Miners’ goalie Michael Lenko five-hole to tie it at 2:07.
Then Tookenay’s winner early in the extra frame then gave the Lakers a commanding 2-1 lead in the series.
Ralsten turned aside 24 shots to earn the win while Lenko stopped 43 in taking the loss.
Monday night saw the same result for the Lakers.
After a scoreless first period, the Miners opened the scoring 3:22 into the second on a Jacob Siebenga effort.
Fort Frances drew level 91 seconds into the third when defenceman Jack Dunnell tapped in a beautiful pass from Withers.
Muskie boys’ and affiliate player Eric Pitkanen earned his first career SIJHL playoff assist and point on the marker.
It remained tied from there throughout the rest of regulation.
Withers’ tally in the extra frame then gave the Lakers their second-straight OT win over English River as well as sealed the series win.
Ralsten turned aside 42 shots to pick up the win while Lenko stopped 45 in taking the loss.