Lakers see Christmas break as welcome reprieve

Dan Falloon

Fort Frances Lakers’ captain Tyler Stevenson probably said what the rest of his teammates were thinking.
“The [Christmas] break couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” the Edmonton native acknowledged.
“It’ll give us a few days to regroup, get the bodies back in good shape, and come back hungry,” he reasoned.
The Lakers (19-11-3) have dropped five-straight games heading into the break, including a 5-4 overtime loss in Dryden last Wednesday and then a 4-3 defeat to Wisconsin here Friday night.
Defenceman Phil Jennrich, who tallied two points versus the Wilderness, felt the upcoming hiatus may have been a factor.
“I truly believe it’s because this big break is coming up and they’re more excited to go home,” opined the Lake Forest, Calif. product.
“Once we get home, everyone’s done with wanting to go home and we’ll come back ready to play,” he vowed.
The five-game slide is the team’s longest since dropping their last five games of the 2009-10 season.
It’s not as though the local Junior ‘A’ squad is getting manhandled as all five defeats have come by one-goal margins, including two in overtime.
Still, the Lakers certainly are intent on getting the sour taste rinsed out of their mouths with some eggnog and pumpkin pie before returning for an exhibition showdown with the Fort Frances Thunderhawks next Tuesday (Dec. 28).
Game time is 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.
“It’s not like we’re getting blown out. We’re in the games,” reasoned head coach Wayne Strachan. “It’s just that one period that bites us in the butt.
“We’ve got to overcome it,” he stressed.
Strachan said the biggest problems have come in the defensive zone. Of the four teams bunched together at the top of the SIJHL, the Lakers have the highest GAA at just over three goals per game.
“Our defensive zone is what’s hurting us right now,” Strachan remarked. “We’ve still had success because our offensive game is there, but our production’s down and we’re not making wise decisions in our own end.”
The Lakers are second in goals for per game, sitting just over 3.6.
Strachan acknowledged it is alarming to see re-runs of the same old mistakes after seeming to correct them at practice.
“It’s definitely concerning,” he said.
“The other day in practice, we walked through some different scenarios,” Strachan noted. “I thought they got it and they understood what we were talking about, but come game time, it’s not clicking for us.”
The defensive miscues were apparent on both of Wisconsin’s first-period goals Friday night.
The Wilderness got on the scoreboard at 8:34 of the first when James Kline was allowed a number of whacks at the puck in front of goalie Tyler Ampe before
eventually forcing it over the line.
The Lakers then had a chance to tie the score in the following minutes when Cody Hasbargen’s point shot knocked the stick out of the hand of Wisconsin goalie Jake Hebda.
There was a scramble but Fort Frances couldn’t beat the stick-less netminder.
The Wilderness went up 2-0 at 11:52 thanks to a rare 3-on-0 breakaway. The puck made its way to Keith Tessin, who deked out Ampe and roofed the puck into the net.
The Lakers battled to within one late in the frame when Phil Jennrich unleashed a howitzer from the point. The power-play marker—his third of the season—went in just under Hebda’s glove at 17:14.
Wisconsin regained its two-goal lead with the lone tally of the second period. Andrew Anderson and Steve Hughes broke out on a 2-on-1, with Hughes feeding Anderson for a blocker-side marker.
The Wilderness then went up by three early in the third as Austin Adduono collected a Wilson Housley feed and tapped the puck into the open net at 2:08.
The Lakers responded quickly, however, as Stevenson corralled a Morgan McNeill rebound and whipped home a power-play goal for his 27th of the season.
Fort Frances thought it had climbed to within one midway through the frame when a player came out from behind the net and fired one past Hebda.
But play continued. The Lakers argued their case at the next stoppage to no avail.
They eventually did pull to within one when Jace Baldwin tipped a Jennrich point shot into the net.
The goal—the Lakers’ third power-play tally of the night and Baldwin’s 13th overall—came with just three seconds to go.
Ampe made 18 saves while Hebda turned aside 27 shots.
In Dryden last Wednesday, Jaret Leclair scored twice while Baldwin and Byron Katapaytuk added singles.
The disallowed goal versus Wisconsin was the third controversial call to go against the Lakers during their current slide.
An apparent offside goal in Thunder Bay’s favour started the skid while a loss to Duluth saw the net knocked off its supports just before Stevenson’s shot went in.
Still, Strachan said even though the calls have been going against his team, there still are a number of plays that brought about defeat.
“We . . . just have to look at the mistakes and breakdowns we had that cost us the four goals,” he reasoned.
Jennrich, meanwhile, said if the Lakers stick to the game plan upon their return, the story should differ from what fans have seen these past few weeks.
“We’ve just got to start playing our coach’s game,” he stressed. “We sway away from it way too much.
“When we cycle the puck, have a great forecheck, no team in the league can hang with us and we’ve shown that time after time,” Jennrich added.
“We’ve been right there in every game, and when we play, I don’t think that there’s a team in the league that can stick with us,” agreed Stevenson.
“We’ve got the tools, we’ve got to put them to work,” he reasoned.
The Lakers don’t resume SIJHL play until New Year’s Eve, when they visit the Duluth Clydesdales.
The teams then will complete the home-and-home series Jan. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.