Lakers showing signs of progress

Jamie Mountain

Wayne Strachan can see the light at the end of the tunnel and he’s hoping to guide his team towards it.

The head coach and general manager of the Fort Frances Lakers has seen some signs of progress from his club and feels as though it is starting to play some of its best hockey of the season–even if it’s not exactly showing in the win column just yet.

Despite dropping both games of a home-and-home series against the Red Lake Miners over the weekend, and with the team currently mired in a seven-game losing streak, Strachan feels as though the Lakers are trending in the right direction to taste success moving forward.

“The last two games have probably been our best two back-to-back games all season and it hasn’t turned out on the winning side of things but we gotta keep believing in ourselves,” Strachan said after the Lakers’ 2-1 loss to the Miners on Friday night at the Ice For Kids Arena.

“We’ve come a long way in the last two weeks and it shows in our game. It shows guys are committed and if we have that belief in what we’re doing, sooner or later here we’re gonna come out on the positive side and good things are gonna happen.”

The Lakers put in a great effort on Friday night here against the Miners, but all of their hard work came undone late as the visitors walked away with the narrow 2-1 win.

The second-place Miners (24-11-3-2 heading into yesterday) opened the scoring early in the first period on a nice individual effort off a face-off as Ryan Howe tucked home a wraparound attempt on Lakers’ goalie Dean Bucholz.

The Lakers (13-21-3 heading into yesterday) came back to tie it just a few shifts later as Kyle Uzelman buried his 11th of the season from in close to knot it at 1-1 after 20 minutes.

Following a scoreless second stanza, Red Lake had a chance to regain the lead at 4:31 but Buchholz thwarted Jordan Baranesky on a penalty shot to keep the score level.

“I think that’s probably the most solid game he’s played in a Lakers’ uniform,” Strachan said of Bucholz, who the Lakers acquired back on Dec. 1 from the Lindsay Muskies (OJHL).

“Just saw a focus in him that I hadn’t before and, you know, that’s what we need right now. We need a goalie to step up and win us a game or obviously keep us in games to have a shot to have success.

“He definitely did that tonight,” he lauded. “Obviously his biggest save was on the penalty shot and of course he made other stops that we needed him to and it just gives the team all that more confidence in front of him when they know they have that behind them.”

However, deep into the third, and with some pressure in the Lakers’ zone, Howe got it in front to Stuckless, who finished off a backhander from the slot for the game-winner.

The Lakers pulled Bucholz and pressed for the equalizer, but could not solve Zach Willms in the Miners net, who finished with 38 saves to nab the win.

Buchholz, meanwhile, faced 28 shots in the narrow defeat.

Fort Frances then followed that up with another solid effort the following night at the Cochenour Arena, but again it was the Miners who came out on top by a 5-4 margin.

Spencer Milne provided a career single-game high four goals, including the game-winner, as his big offensive performance paced the Miners’ attack.

Down a skater early, Shaye Sommerfeld struck short-handed for the Miners three minutes into the first period to give the home side the early lead.

Still on the power play, though, Fort Frances came right back to tie it on Matthieu Harrold’s seventh since joining the club back in early December.

Stone Stelzl then broke through the Red Lake defence and went in alone on Willms where he made a quick deke right and slid in a backhand to put the guests in front.

Reece Hopfner then stuffed one in a couple of shifts later to stake the Lakers to a 3-1 lead after 20 minutes.

But Milne tallied twice in quick order to level the proceedings before Harrold slammed in his second of the night at 19:09 as his man advantage effort gave Fort Frances a 4-3 edge through 40 minutes.

In the third, it was more from Milne as his hat trick tally at 6:01 knotted the affair once more.

Then on a late power play, Milne took a feed from Keilan Toews before making a quick power move on top of the crease and burying the game-winner past Lakers’ goalie Alex Bugeja to cap the scoring.

Zach Willms made 31 saves to earn the win while Bugeja turned aside 28 shots in taking the loss.

The last-place Lakers were slated resume action yesterday afternoon against the league-leading Thunder Bay North Stars (26-12-3 heading into yesterday) in their opening game of the SIJHL’s annual two-day “Showcase” at the Spooner Civic Center, with the outcome not known as of press time.

The Lakers then will conclude play this afternoon when they take on the Miners once again at 4:15 p.m.

All of the “Showcase” games will count towards the league standings.

Fort Frances then will wrap up the week with a home-and-home series against the third-place Thief River Falls Norskies (21-16-3 heading into yesterday).

The Norskies will host the opener on Friday night at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, with both teams then heading back to Fort Frances the following night for the finale at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.