Lakers to face Rangers in final

Joey Payeur

The Fort Frances Lakers are not married to the idea of playing the bridesmaid’s role yet again.
But another team from Minnesota has exactly that in mind for the local squad.
It will be the Lakers and Minnesota Iron Rangers duking it out for the Bill Salonen Cup, emblematic of SIJHL supremacy, in the best-of-seven final that opens this weekend in Fort Frances.
Game 1 will go Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena, with Game 2 to follow at the same time Saturday.
Games 3 and 4 will be in Hoyt Lakes, Mn. next Wednesday and Thursday (April 16-17).
Game 5, if necessary, will be back at the IFK Arena on Saturday, April 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 6 would go April 21 in Hoyt Lakes.
If a Game 7 is needed, it’s slated for Wednesday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the IFK Arena.
This will mark the third-straight appearance in the SIJHL final for the Lakers, who swept the English River Miners 4-0 in their semi-final showdown with a 7-2 win in Game 3 last Thursday night and then a 7-3 win in Game 4 on Friday (both in Ear Falls).
“Well, we are hoping three is a charm,” said Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan, whose squad was defeated by the Wisconsin Wilderness in 2012 and then the Minnesota Wilderness last year.
“We know it won’t be easy and we will have to rise to the task in a huge seven-game series,” Strachan noted.
“The past is the past,” he stressed. “We will not dwell on what has happened but hopefully learn from what we didn’t do to get over the hump this time.”
The Iron Rangers, meanwhile, upset the Thunder Bay North Stars 4-2 in their semi-final series—a minor surprise considering Thunder Bay finished in second ahead of third-place Minnesota during the regular season.
The North Stars also boasted SIJHL Player of the Year Daniel Del Paggio and the league’s top goalie, Eric Mann, on their roster.
The Lakers—riding a five-game winning streak in the playoffs—held a 9-1-2 advantage in the season series and outscored Minnesota 50-39.
But nine of the 12 games were decided by two goals or less, meaning despite their 18-point difference in the regular-season standings (96-78), this will be a much tighter series than the numbers indicate.
“If it’s anything like the regular-season games, both teams bring speed and skill,” said Strachan.
“They are a fairly big team, as well, and like to play in-your-face, so we will have to be prepared for both and to match their intensity,” he conceded.
Staying out of the penalty box will be crucial for both teams.
The Lakers converted 17-of-66 power plays against the Iron Rangers during the regular season (25.8 percent), with Minnesota almost as equally dangerous against Fort Frances at 10-for-41 (24.4 percent).
“The biggest things will be shutting down their offence and power play and getting to their goaltending,” Strachan remarked.
Heading into Ear Falls with a 2-0 series lead, the Lakers found a belligerent bunch of Miners awaiting them for Game 3.
Fort Frances jumped out to a 3-0 lead after the first period on a pair of goals by Miles Nolan, who won the Pizza Hut player of the week award for the second consecutive time yesterday, sandwiched around one by Bryce Lipinski.
The advantage grew to five when Nolan got his hat-trick goal 15 seconds into the period before Donovan Cousineau added a power-play goal.
The Miners launched a comeback bid when Will Wickersham and Ian Bablitz (power play) scored 1:27 apart before the midway mark of the second.
But Brent Aiken netted a power-play goal 19 seconds into the third before Nolan completed his four-goal performance with the man-advantage at 13:28, with Kevin Kurm assisting on all four.
The game spiralled into chaos at the 10:01 mark of the third—15 seconds after the Lakers’ Ryan McQueen and the Miners’ John Morales were ejected for fighting.
English River’s Kellen McBlain steamrolled Hunter Leishman from behind, touching off an on-ice war that saw most of the Lakers keep their composure in the face of a group assault from the Miners.
“Our guys came in to show support for what happened and pushing and shoving started, which turned into them taking it too far,” seethed Strachan.
“In my opinion, there was no need for what happened,” he added. “We had four guys with gloves on and guys getting double-teamed.
“To me, it wasn’t needed and we are happy our guys remained disciplined.”
McBlain, Wickersham, Taylor Bargar, and goalie P.D. Melgoza all were handed game miscoducts, with Tanner Fricke the only Laker given the same punishment.
It also meant automatic one-game suspensions for the quintet because the ejections happening inside the last 10 minutes of the third.
Devin Tappenden made 16 saves for the victory while Melgoza suffered the loss after 23 saves (Greg Harney made five saves in relief).
Nolan then kept up his frenetic offensive pace in Game 4 the following night—posting another three points to give him a team-high 12 in six playoff games after only 28 in 52 regular-season ones.
He had the lone goal of the first at 8:27, set up by his partners on the “KAN Line” (Kurm and Aiken).
Mason Meyer connected short-handed at 3:47 of the second, with Paul Lamoureux getting the Miners on the board 48 seconds later.
But just 42 seconds after that, Riley Daly made it 3-1 for the Lakers, with Nolan knocking in his second at 9:07 for a three-goal cushion.
Royce King cut the lead to 4-2 at 14:19, but Kurm lit the lamp at 18:40 to make it 5-2 entering the third.
English River tried one more push, with Eric Masters’ power-play goal at 3:18 giving the crowd in Ear Falls a sliver of hope.
But the Lakers’ “DLM Line” took a chainsaw to that slice, however, as Lyndon Lipinski pumped the lead back up to 6-3 at 7:43, with Lucas DeBenedet (two assists) and Meyer setting him up.
Aiken then put the exclamation point to the series with a power-play goal at 18:06 as the “KAN Line” combined for 11 points in the game for the second-straight game and 28 in the four-game series.
“As good as Miles has been, I think his line has played well and was a huge part of our success through the series with the Miners,” lauded Strachan.
“As I have said about Miles, the line has played hard, kept the game simple, moved the puck effectively, got under the skin of the other team, and capitalized in a big way on their offensive chances, as well as taking care of their own end, which led to a lot of their offence.”
Jordan Cartney made 14 saves in his first start since Feb. 28 while Harney had 27 stops in a losing cause.
“We had discussed the possibility of Jordan playing in the series for many days and once we won Game 3 and the rough stuff started, we felt it was a good chance to get him some game action,” Strachan explained.
“He has worked hard in practice to stay sharp. I thought overall he played well,” added Strachan.
“Their goals were all around the net, where he made saves and we didn’t have coverage, giving them more than one opportunity.
“And for the most part, our defence didn’t allow many quality chances for the Miners,” he noted.
Defenceman Aaron Wesley-Chisel (undisclosed) hopes to resume skating this week, although Strachan is uncertain about his status for Game 1 of the final.