Lakers upset in series opener

Joey Payeur

Eric Mann was the man Saturday night although the Fort Frances Lakers had something to do with his ascendancy to the starring role.
The Thunder Bay North Stars’ goalie turned in a 39-save performance to backstop his team to a 4-3 win over the visiting Lakers in the opener of their two-game, total goal series.
“Eric played well. . . . In the end, he probably was the difference for them to win the game,” said Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan, whose team outshot the North Stars 42-21.
“[Mann] made three key or game-breaking saves that kept them in the game and made the routine ones he needed to,” Strachan noted.
“We put a lot of pucks on him but most of our top scoring chances we missed the net on,” he added.
“We get a breakaway where we shoot high and a puck that may have went in gets knocked out by our own players.”
The Lakers now must win by two goals in regulation in Game 2 here Friday night to clinch the series.
A one-goal victory in regulation, overtime, or the shootout will force a tie-breaking shootout to decide the winner, who gets to pick its semi-final opponent for the next round.
“I don’t feel we are in a bad position and, obviously, still have an opportunity to win the showdown series,” Strachan remarked.
“[But] as much as I believe we carried the play in Game 1, I do not feel we were at the level we are capable of playing at,” he admitted.
“We had many big players for us not bring their ‘A’-game and that’s something that can’t happen if you want to win a championship,” stressed Strachan.
“We need to stay positive and come out Friday with one thing in mind—playing intense hockey.”
Cary Brown opened the scoring for the hosts with the lone goal of the first period.
Lucas DeBenedet, the SIJHL’s goal-scoring king and scoring champ this season, knotted the affair at 1:34 of the second when he netted the Lakers’ only power-play goal in five tries on the night.
Brent Aiken gave the Lakers their first lead at 6:44 of the third before the North Stars replied with goals 1:19 apart by Trevor Hynnes and Brandon Mihalus to retake the lead.
Aiken put the Lakers back on even terms with his second of the game at 14:43, with Miles Nolan earning his second assist of the period.
“Aikes and Miles played well in the third with the guys that were rotated in with them,” Strachan lauded.
“They were keeping it simple, working the puck low and had traffic at the net,” he noted.
“Aikes’ second goal was just . . . a little drop play at the blueline backed the defence off and a nice shot in the corner.”
Kris Kellaway sent the Stars’ fans home happy, though, as he jumped on a rebound and fired a shot that accidentally may have been swept into the net by a Laker with 3:39 to go.
Brandon Wolframe’s interference penalty with 2:28 left gave the Lakers one more chance to tie things up.
But the Stars’ penalty-killing unit did its job to preserve the victory.
Lakers’ goalie Devin Tappenden made 17 saves in losing for the first time since Jan. 28—a span of 11 appearances.
“The power play was just OK,” said Strachan. “We scored one as we moved the puck around and got pucks to the net.
“I don’t think we made great decisions on the power play,” he added. “We had men open and were not making sound plays to create a lot of great opportunities other than the one we scored on.
“In the last few minutes, we had a couple of opportunities to create scoring chances, but didn’t make smart decisions with the puck similar to how we did all game.”
Thunder Bay was held scoreless on its two man-advantage chances, but Strachan was looking at that from the glass half-empty perspective.
“Four even-strength goals is not good, in my opinion,” he fumed.
“The first goal, a soft play at the blueline allows their man to drive wide and score,” he recalled.
“Second goal, there is a missed check at our blueline that allows a 3-on-2 and a back-door goal.
“On the third goal, a shot from the point comes with no coverage in place and gets in the back of the net, although I’m not sure if [Tappenden] was screened or not,” Strachan added.
“Fourth goal, the save is made but there’s a rebound and a second effort by [Kellaway], and I am not sure if our defenceman knocked the puck in the net or not but it goes in.
“I believe Devin has played better,” said Strachan.
“But I also believe our team has played better and sometimes that’s the way the breaks go in hockey.”
Now the Lakers get to test their short-term amnesia skills.
“We need to forget about the game, put it behind us, and have an intense week of practice,” stressed Strachan.
The squad did get some good news on the injury front.
Captain Patrick Sofer, who injured his shoulder Valentine’s Day against the Minnesota Iron Rangers, is ready to return to action for Game 2 on Friday.
It will mark the forward lines returning to normal after several weeks of mixing and matching lines due to a spate of injuries up front.
But defenceman Aaron Wesley-Chisel remains out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury, with Strachan saying it was unlikely Wesley-Chisel would be back in time for Game 2.
Meanwhile, the two quarter-final series appear to be following predicted form.
Minnesota took both home games to open its best-of-seven showdown against the Wisconsin Wilderness, winning 5-2 on Friday and then 4-3 on Sunday to lead 2-0 heading into Game 3 tonight in Spooner, Wis.
The other series has the English River Miners and Dryden Ice Dogs tied 1-1.
English River beat Dryden 6-2 on Friday in Ear Falls. But Dryden prevailed 3-2 there Sunday to steal home-ice advantage entering Game 3 tonight in Dryden.