Lakers split opening games in Spooner

Lucas Punkari

Heading into Game 3 of the best-of-seven series for the Bill Salonen Cup tonight at the Ice For Kids Arena, the Fort Frances Lakers and Wisconsin Wilderness have more than lived up to their billing as the top two teams in the SIJHL this season.
After two dramatic but different affairs at the Northwest Sports Complex in Spooner, both teams are deadlocked at a win apiece in the fight for the league title going into tonight’s clash here.
Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan is approaching the upcoming games as a brand new series.
“We pretty much will forget about what has happened in the first two games thus far,” he noted.
“But we will remember why we were successful and know what we need to do again to have success in Game 3 here tonight.
“We need to stay composed, stay disciplined, continue to work hard, and play smart, simple hockey,” he stressed.
The Lakers—in their first SIJHL final as a franchise—opened the series on a winning note Sunday night with a 4-2 triumph over the host Wilderness.
That victory not only was the first for Fort Frances at the Northwest Sports Complex, but it also snapped the Wilderness’ impressive 32-game home winning streak.
“All week long we prepared ourselves mentally for one thing and that was Game 1,” Strachan stressed.
“With the long lay-off [following their four-game sweep of the Dryden Ice Dogs in the semi-finals], I wasn’t sure what to expect in the first period,” he admitted.
“But we came out strong and battled hard,” he noted. “And even though we were out-shot [10-5], we battled hard and did a lot of positive things that helped set things up for the rest of the game.
“We were hungry and showed that we wanted the victory, and to say that it was big to get the win is an understatement,” added Strachan.
“To get off to a lead in the series gives us some confidence, but we know it isn’t going to be easy.”
Henry Gutierrez netted a pair of goals in the opener, with SIJHL player-of-the-year Byron Katapaytuk scoring an empty-netter late and also assisting one of Gutierrez’s markers.
Alex Bruess had opened the scoring for the Lakers in the second period with his first goal since December of last year. At the other end of the rink, Tyler Ampe made 34 saves to earn the game’s second star.
“I thought it was a total team effort,” Strachan said. “We kept the game simple, our penalty kill was strong, and our power play came through when we needed it to.
“Every guy that was dressed contributed in some to help us achieve the win,” he added.
Game 2 on Monday night was a wild and crazy encounter compared to the opener, with both teams trading goals until Andrew Anderson hit the twine to give the Wilderness a
dramatic 6-5 win.
“In the first period we were down 3-1, but by all means we were not out-played,” stressed Strachan.
“We just didn’t play as smart as we needed to and we turned the puck over too many times at our blueline.
“We knew we needed to win the second period to set ourselves up for a chance to have success, and we set out and did just that,” he added.
“There was never any doubt on the bench that we couldn’t come back in the game, and we showed that.
“In the overtime, we had a bad turnover in the neutral zone when we could have got the puck deep and they ended up winning the game.
“But we accomplished a [road] split, which we have to be happy with,” Strachan reasoned.
The scoring was spread out through the entire Lakers’ lineup in Monday’s game, with no player earning more than a single point.
Gutierrez, Jaret Leclair, Merritt Rysavy, Jordan Christianson, and Jordan Larson were the goal scorers, with Ryan Wildman, Adam Wensley, Davis Smith, and Jon Carlson all adding assists.
“Like in Game 1, I thought it was another total team effort with everyone contributing to the effort,” Strachan said.
“I thought our centres did a good job in setting the tone for their lines, and I thought that Henry’s line was a big reason that we had success as they helped to also set the tone for the other lines to follow.”
Game 4 then goes here tomorrow (April 5) at 7:30 p.m., with Game 5 back in Spooner on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Game 6, if necessary, will take place here next Monday (April 9) at 7:30 p.m.
Should a seventh and deciding game be needed, it is scheduled for Wednesday, April 11 at 7 p.m. in Spooner.
At stake is the chance to represent the SIJHL at this year’s Dudley Hewitt Cup, which will be held April 17-21 at the Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay.
The Thunder Bay North Stars will be there as the tournament host, while the representatives for the NOJHL and the OJHL are to be decided in the coming days.
In the NOJHL, the Soo Thunderbirds hold a 2-0 lead over the North Bay Trappers heading into Game 3 on Good Friday in North Bay.
The OJHL final between the Stouffville Spirit and Whitby Fury is slated to get underway tomorrow night.