Lakers stumble in games against Norskies

Jamie Mountain

The Fort Frances Lakers are going to have to all get on the same page if they plan on digging themselves out of the hole they currently find themselves in.

That’s the message that head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan is delivering to his team after they were dealt a pair of losses in a home-and-home sweep at the hands of the Thief River Falls Norskies over the weekend.

After battling back and falling just short in a 4-3 loss on Friday night at the Ice For Kids Arena, the squad was dumped by a 7-3 count the following night in Thief River Falls.

The back-to-back losses saw the Lakers’ record fall to 13-18-3 and they’ve also slipped to last-place in the six-team league–a point back of the expansion Wisconsin Lumberjacks (13-21-3-1).

“My view is we have the personnel to be a very good hockey team and we believe in everyone in our locker room,” Strachan said.

“We have proven we can play with anyone on any given night. However, we need everyone in our locker room on the same page, playing for one another and going to war as a family.

“Until we get to this point consistently, all the experts in the world can say we need to work on this and that, practice this and that, point fingers at who’s fault it is, but until some egos of certain players are put aside, it’s going to be tough to beat teams that stick together,” he stressed.

“We are well aware of where we need to improve our game but the egos are hurting us in practice, which leads to games and–at some point–our program’s culture, rules and identity have to be all that matters if we want to reach our goals and reach our full potential together as a team.”

Norskies’ captain Bryce Johnson notched a hat trick and added an assist in leading his side to a convincing win over the visiting Lakers on Saturday night in front of an SIJHL single-game record crowd of 3,049 at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

That figure broke the previous SIJHL mark of 3,045 that the Norskies had on hand back on Feb. 24, 2017 in another meeting with the Lakers.

Thief River Falls earlier boasted 3,011 spectators in a match-up versus the Thunder Bay North Stars back on Feb. 11, 2017 while the SIJHL neutral site contest between the then English River Miners and Fort Frances drew a sold out gathering of 2,050 to the Kenora Recreation Centre as part of the Hockey Day in Canada celebrations on Feb. 18 that same year.

Seemingly energized by the big crowd, the Norskies (19-15-3) took control early by striking three times in the first period on a power-play goal from Nick Harder and even-strength efforts courtesy of Joe Collins and Johnson.

Johnson then notched his second of night 6:43 into the second to put the Norskies ahead by four.
The Lakers cut into the deficit during a power play in the back half of the second when Jaden Wake wristed home his first career SIJHL marker as he converted from the point at 15:51.

They then added one more just before the stanza expired as Stone Stelzl spun and fired in his 14th at 19:59 to trim it to 4-2.

An early man advantage in the third helped Justin Schwartzmiller put the hosts up by three before the period was two minutes old.

After Johnson finished off his second career hat trick with an unassisted goal at 11:04, Reece Hopfner connected for the Lakers just a couple of shifts later while up a skater.

The Norskies then finished it off when Greg Paseschnikoff darted down the left wing and deposited his first SIJHL goal at 19:35 to cap the scoring.

Harder chipped in with two assists for Thief River Falls as part of a three-point night.

The shots on goal also favoured the Norskies by a 36-34 count, with Seth Purcilly earning the win and Alex Bugeja suffering the loss.

“Both games were very similar, the work ethic is there, but we are like an emotional roller coaster,” Strachan admitted.

“We were not outplayed or outchanced through the two games. The difference in both games comes down to sticking with the plan, keeping our emotions on an even keel and committing to sixty minutes of hard hockey.

“Through these two games we played a solid forty to fifty minutes, but we were our own worst enemy with turnovers, penalties and I hate to say it . . . but selfish play at times,” he remarked.

The night prior, Cory Checco’s short-handed goal 11-and-a-half minutes into the third period proved to be the winner as the Norskies skated to a narrow 4-3 win over the Lakers at the Ice For Kids Arena.

Thief River Falls also opened the scoring 14:50 into the opening frame as Johnson snapped one home during a man advantage opportunity.

The visitors then came right back to go up by a pair a couple of shifts later as former Laker Isaac Baron buried one from the left side to extend the lead.

On the power play to begin the middle frame, the Lakers got on the board 55 seconsd in as Flynn Perry banked one in from close range.

It was more Fort Frances just over a minute later when Stone Stelzl set-up Kyle Uzelman for his ninth of the season to knot it at 2–2.

Down a skater shortly afterwards, the home side added another as Ben Hoefler’s attempt towards the net clipped off a Norskies’ defender and changed direction just enough to get past Thief River Falls goalie Joshua Seeley.

That held up until early in the third when Nick Harder supplied the equalizer from the slot at 2:29 to knot it at 3-3.

Then benefitting from a turnover deep in Lakers’ territory, Checco quickly snapped in the eventual game-winner from the right face off circle to finish off a three-point night.

Fort Frances did outshoot Thief River Falls 36-32, but it was Seeley notching the win and Dean Buchholz getting tagged with the loss.

“We had every opportunity to take control in both games and we didn’t seize that momentum or get enough opportunities in the Grade A areas,” Strachan lamented. “The little areas of the game hurt us at key times this past weekend . . . areas [where] we turned over the puck, the times we took penalties, being puck focused and not finding our coverage. We need to continue to grow our game in these areas.”

The Lakers next are in action tonight when they hit the road to take on the league-leading Thunder Bay North Stars (25-10-3) at the Fort William Gardens.

The squad then will cap the week with a home-and-home series against the second-place Red Lake Miners (22-11-3-2).

Fort Frances will play host in the opener on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. before heading to Red Lake the following night for the finale at the Cochenour Arena.