Lakers repeat as SIJHL champs

Joey Payeur

Nathan Park and Pierce Dushenko were doing mid-air body bumps in full goalie gear.
Roshen Jaswal had a replica championship belt slung over his shoulder.
Sticks, gloves, and helmets strewn all over one half of the ice in a pattern dictated by chaotic merriment.
Signs of celebration were everywhere Saturday night after the Fort Frances Lakers beat the host Dryden GM Ice Dogs 3-1 in Game 6 to clinch the best-of-seven SIJHL final by a 4-2 margin.
The Lakers, who put themselves in position to end the series with a 6-3 victory in Game 5 here Friday night, became the first Fort Frances team to repeat as SIJHL champs.
They also enter the Dudley Hewitt Cup, the Central Canadian Junior ‘A’ championship being held here April 28-May 2, riding a wave of momentum after battling back from a 2-1 series’ deficit.
The Ice Dogs will get a shot at payback at the Dudley Hewitt, though, as they also are in the field as the SIJHL rep (the Lakers had an automatic berth as host team).
“It’s been in our mind all year and this has been our goal,” said Lakers’ forward Wyatt Cota, whose hat trick accounted for all the team’s offence Saturday.
“Ever since the first game, we didn’t just want to go in as hosts,” he stressed.
“I think we’ve got something special going on here.”
Park was named the Gongshow Gear playoff MVP after going 8-2, sporting a league-best 2.65 GAA and .919 save percentage.
Previously named the SIJHL’s top goalie this season and a first-team all-star, Park was stellar with 27 saves in the finale.
“It’s taking a while to settle in,” said Park, who joined the Lakers in mid-December from the Selkirk Steelers (MJHL).
“This is something I’ve never experienced before—winning a league championship,” he noted.
“It’s a little surprising [being named MVP],” Park admitted.
“But after having a tough Game 2 [a 5-4 loss], I was able to bounce back and make sure the team had a chance to win the games we needed to win.”
Cota got things rolling early in the first period Saturday night when he rushed into the Dryden zone, cut to the left, and zipped a shot that partially deflected off an Ice Dog defender’s outstretched stick and past goalie Tate Sproxton.
Robbie Bonthron, who played mostly at forward during the final rather than his normal blueline spot due to injuries up front, then sprung Cota on a breakaway.
The shifty veteran, who led the Lakers in scoring both during the regular season (68 points) and the playoffs (17), froze Sproxton with a deke to the backhand before beating him.
“Cota and Park work their butts off every time they’re on the ice,” said Lakers’ captain Miles Nolan, who accepted the championship trophy from Bill Salonen himself.
Park had a strong second period, turning away every Dryden chance as the Lakers were outshot 16-8.
In the third, Dryden finally shed its bad luck (two posts and two crossbars in the game), and got their crowd revved up one more time, with Blake Peavey’s marker at the 13-minute mark.
But the Lakers held up to the challenge—even when faced with a 6-on-4 situation after Cody Antonini was whistled for high-sticking with 50 seconds to go and Sproxton on the bench for an extra attacker.
Cota closed the book on Dryden’s hopes with a short-handed, long-range empty-netter with 3.2 seconds left and the party was on shortly thereafter.
“I’ve watched these guys throughout the season work so hard and in this final, we fought through the most adversity we have this season,” said Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan.
“They never gave up and rose to the occasion.
“And for us to do it two years in a row is a tribute to the great players we’ve had this year and last, and to those who played in the last five years for this organization,” he added.
Looking ahead, the Lakers will face the OJHL champs in their first game at the four-team Dudley Hewitt Cup next Tuesday (April 28) at 7:30 p.m.
The defending Dudley Hewitt champion Toronto Patriots, who ousted the Lakers at last year’s Dudley Hewitt, lead Cota’s former team, the Kingston Voyageurs, 3-2 in the best-of-seven OJHL final.
Game 6 goes tonight in Kingston, with Game 7 (if necessary) set for Wednesday in Toronto.
Meanwhile, the Sault Ste. Marie Thunderbirds captured the NOJHL title last night with a 5-3 victory over the Cochrane Crunch in Game 5 of their championship final.
The Thunderbirds will face the Ice Dogs in the Dudley Hewitt opener next Tuesday at 2 p.m.