Lakers rebound from pair of late losses

Lucas Punkari

It didn’t fully take away the bitter feeling of losing but it did help to lessen the sour taste just a little bit.
Following a pair of home shootout losses to the Dryden Ice Dogs last Wednesday and then to the Wisconsin Wilderness on Friday night, the Fort Frances Lakers brought an end to their brief two-game slide with a 5-1 win over the Iron Range Ironheads on Sunday afternoon in Chisholm.
“We will take the win after two tough losses earlier [in the] week,” Lakers’ head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan said after Sunday’s triumph.
“Our game plan was to use puck movement and puck possession to our advantage, and for the most part we accomplished that.
“Their rink is smaller than ours so it makes it tougher to get your speed and a good puck flow going because everyone is on top of each other,” he noted.
“But we were able to use our speed to open things up and we had many good opportunities to break things open.”
The offensive catalysts for the Lakers on Sunday was the line of Jordan Christianson, Byron Katapaytuk, and Ryan Wildman, who were involved in three of the five goals.
Christianson led the way with two goals and an assist while Wildman and Katapaytuk each had two points on the afternoon, including a second-period power-play tally by the latter.
“I thought many of our lines gelled together to be honest,” said Strachan. “But it just so happened that their line was the one that capitalized on their chances.
“Those three guys clicked once again, and I think that they had many chances to have more points than they ended up getting,” he added.
Connor Hady and Alex Bruess also scored for the Lakers while goalie Tyler Ampe made 22 saves to earn the victory.
Sunday’s triumph definitely was a much-needed one for the team’s psyche after they blew two-goal leads in their previous two games.
Last Wednesday night, the Lakers had a two-goal lead evaporate not once but twice against the Ice Dogs before eventually falling to the visitors 6-5 in a shootout.
“Even though up we were up a few times in the game, I didn’t think our effort level was where it needed to be,” Strachan admitted.
“Our game plan was to push the pace of the game, use our speed, and be physical, but that didn’t happen and it was our lack of effort and discipline that cost us the game.”
While Strachan expressed disappointment over his team’s play, Ice Dogs’ head coach Joe West was quite pleased with the way his team performed, especially since they only had 13 skaters dressed due to injuries and suspensions.
“Any time that you can beat a team like Fort Frances and get two points away from them, you are obviously going to be to happy,” West smiled.
“If you are going to win a game like that one, you need to have a few things going for you, and our special teams and our goaltender [Dean Shepherdson] were the difference tonight,” he added.
Leading the way for the Ice Dogs was forward Thomas Greene, who had two goals and an assist, while Austin Lewis scored the lone goal in the shootout on Ampe.
Jordan Larson was the top player on offence for the Lakers with two goals and an assist, with Hady, Marty McFadden, and Blake Boaz adding singles.
If Strachan was disenchanted with the way his team performed Wednesday night, he was far more pleased with how they played in the first 50 minutes against the defending SIJHL champion
Wilderness here Friday night as they held a 2-0 lead with 10 minutes to go on goals by McFadden and Merritt Rysavy.
“I thought there was a lot more effort by the guys in this game than the one we played on Wednesday,” Strachan noted.
“They knew what was on the line, and even though Wisconsin has had our number this season, I though that at times we were the better team on the ice.”
However, the Lakers again saw their cushion disappear during a two-and-a-half minute span as Wilderness forward Mike Dietrich netted a pair of goals to knot the score.
“It was the same old story there for us,” Strachan sighed.
“Bad penalties [a tripping minor to Davis Smith] led to the first goal, and then a breakdown in coverage in our own zone left our goaltender [Ampe] and one of our defenders left hanging, and as a result it’s tied up at two.”
“Even though we were down by two goals, we all knew on the bench that it was nothing too big to overcome as a two-goal lead is the worst lead in hockey,” Dietrich reasoned.
“Our team is made up of 22 leaders, and tonight we showed just that, so it was nice to go out there and get it done,” added the 19-year-old from South Hampton, N.J.
With overtime solving nothing, both teams went to a shootout, where Dietrich opened things up by making a Pavel Datsyuk-ian like move in front of Ampe to find the back of the net and give the visitors the advantage.
“Every day in practice we have a shootout and that’s my signature move,” Dietrich explained.
“I don’t know if it’s as good as someone like Datsyuk’s, but it’s a fun move to try and do and it seems to work.”
Ampe rebounded quickly as he stopped Wilderness shooters Zach Blaisdell and Jordan Shockley. But at the other end of the ice, Lakers’ snipers Katapaytuk, Christianson, and Larson were unable to beat Tanner Milliron, the SIJHL’s player-of-the-month for November, leading to another shootout setback for the home crew.
“When you get into a shootout, it’s anyone’s game,” said Strachan. “But in the last two shootouts, our team just hasn’t rose to the occasion.”
For the Wilderness, the shootout triumph helped them out in the race for top spot in the SIJHL. They now lead the Lakers by three points with three games in hand.
“At this point in the season, any win is a big one,” stressed Wilderness head coach Ron Aldoff.
“And not just looking at Fort Frances, we have other teams who are battling with us,” he noted.
“The kids battled hard throughout the whole game, and to be able to come back and also win in the shootout makes this win a really big one for us.”
Although the end result was disappointing, Strachan was pleased by the performances by defencemen Steve Terry and Brandon Fehd, who made their first appearances for the Lakers after being acquired in trades the previous day.
Terry was acquired from the Wilderness for future considerations while Fehd and forward Bryan Broders joined the Lakers from the Sioux Lookout Flyers in exchange for forward Dane Morin and blueliners Mike Riffel and Jon Stephansson.
“I think that both Steve and Brandon have improved us immensely on the back end as we have a lot more depth and mobility,” Strachan enthused.
“Steve’s very poised out there and he makes a lot of those little smart decisions out there. And Brandon is someone who controls the puck well and if he does make a mistake, he’ll come back out and correct it.
“For both of them to go out in their first game and do what they did, especially against the most skilled team in this league, I’m very happy,” Strachan lauded.
One of the Lakers who was impressed by the new additions was first-year defenceman Jon Carlson, who played with both Fehd and Terry during the course of Friday’s game.
“This was my first time playing with them, and it feels like I’ve been playing with them forever,” he said.
“It’s like I can almost read what they are going to do before they do it, and as a result I like playing with them a lot.”
Another player who has helped improve the Lakers’ depth over the past week is captain Blake Boaz, who returned to the lineup Wednesday against Dryden after a two-month absence due to a broken wrist.
“We’ve definitely missed Blake throughout the last couple of months,” Strachan noted.
“He’s big part of our team, and not just in being our captain, as he can contribute with secondary scoring and he also helps to shore up the team defensively, which showed in him winning the league’s best defensive forward award last season,” Strachan added.
Next up for the Lakers is a trip to Sioux Lookout this Friday to take on the Flyers before returning home for another tilt against the Ice Dogs on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Friday’s game should mark the debut of Broders into the Lakers’ lineup as he sat out last weekend’s games due to an injury.