They’re not going to count in the SIJHL standings, but the two wins that the Fort Frances Lakers picked up this week are an encouraging start to the team’s sophomore season.
The Lakers showed resolve in shocking the host Dryden Ice Dogs last Wednesday night in a 6-5 overtime win, overcoming a 2-0 first-period deficit and a 5-4 last-minute disadvantage to earn the win.
The Lakers then got up on the Sioux Lookout Flyers and didn’t look back, outgunning the Flyers 5-2 in front of the home crowd.
“Overall, the 20 guys we dressed for both games put in a solid hard work ethic,” lauded coach Wayne Strachan.
“We showed a little character in Dryden, coming back and grinding out the win.”
However, the games answered very few questions in regards to the roster crunch. The lineup currently sits at 27 bodies after the Puiras twins—Kyle, a defenceman and Luke, a forward— left the team last week.
The Lakers are looking to get to about 23 before lacing up for Sunday afternoon’s home tilt against the Wisconsin Wilderness at 2:30 p.m.
The bubble players will have to make an impression before then, as the Lakers will face Dryden at home tonight at 7:30 p.m. before hitting the road to face Sioux Lookout on Friday.
“We’ll be speaking with a handful of them, six or seven, and see where their heads are,” explained Strachan.
“The possibility will be for them to tell us why they think they still deserve to be here and we’re going to let them know where they stand in being with the team.”
As for players who look to have secured a position, Strachan noted that Blake Boaz, who tallied two goals and three points against Dryden and an assist against Sioux Lookout, has stood out, as has his linemate, Zach McCool.
“I’ve been very impressed with Blake Boaz,” lauded Strachan.
“He’s showed a little more of an offensive side to his ability and chipped in on some key situations.
“Zach McCool has definitely impressed,” continued Strachan.
“He’s a kid that’s working to get on the team and he’s definitely shown that he’s going to work hard and be a role guy that we can count on for minutes and go and kill penalties.
“He’s shown on the power play that he’s willing to stand in front of the net and take somewhat of a beating to give us the opportunity to score goals.”
Strachan noted that bounce-back performances were the order of the day against the Flyers, however, as Jon Sinclair tallied a pair of power play goals after struggling in Dryden, and defenceman Cody Hasbargen put up three assists with the extra skater after an unimpressive camp.
The man-advantage has been an area of particular strength for the Lakers, as they’ve been able to make the most of numerous opportunities with opponents in the sin bin.
Fort Frances is currently five-for-21 on the power play through the two exhibitions, and Strachan pointed out that it’s been an issue of hard work down low that’s been earning them the chances.
“A lot of the calls have come in their zone and in front of the net,” he observed.
“One thing that we’ve really stressed offensively is getting the puck to the net and paying the price offensively to get in that ‘dirty area’, we like to call it, in front of the net, to score goals, and that’s what our guys are doing.
“They’re getting to the net. They’re using their speed and their strength to get the puck there, or our D is giving our forwards opportunities in front of the net by getting the puck there, and that’s where a lot of the calls have come from,” he continued.
“We’ve had success on the power play and definitely, as a coach, you hope that will continue into the season and the guys won’t change their game in wanting to pay the price to score some goals for us.”
What’s been particularly impressive is that the power play units aren’t even defined yet, and many hopefuls are being given the chance to strut their stuff with the extra skater.
“There’s lots of guys getting the chance to prove they can play on the power play and for the most part, we’ve rolled the four lines and let them show us what they have,” said Strachan.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see guys in a whole bunch of different situations, so it’s been good,” he added.
While Strachan was thrilled with the 2-0 start, it’s difficult to read too much into the victories, as Strachan admitted heading into the games that getting a chance to observe his players, not winning, was the primary objective in the first two starts.
“It’s nice to start the year with a couple of victories,” stressed Strachan.
“We’re definitely going to keep working hard. Two games doesn’t make a season and it’s definitely early in the preseason.”
The Lakers are working to solidify a blue-collar system based on sturdy defensive play and gritty, grinding efforts offensively.
Strachan hopes that the handful of preseason contests will provide his players the opportunity to grow comfortable in the new design.
“Those will be the two biggest keys to our game—keeping pucks out of our zone and and obviously, impacting them to keep pucks in,” reasoned Strachan.
“Our focus in the first two games has been our own end.
“We’re trying to implement a new system and it’s going to take some time for the team to get used to it.
“With five exhibition games, we’re going to have the opportunity to get it into our minds,” he concluded.
This week’s trio of games will be about solidifying the lineup, which should be more or less complete for Sunday’s final preseason game.
After that, the Lakers open the games that count against the defending champion Fort William North Stars at home on Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m.
“We still have a few tough decisions to make and those players that are in the decisions are going to get every chance to play and prove that they can be here,” explained Strachan.
“There will be vets sitting out against Wednesday and possibly Friday, but I’m hoping Friday and Sunday, back home against Wisconsin, I hope it to be the lineup that we’re going to start against the North Stars on the 17th.
“In the past few days, I’ve talked to [director of scouting] Grant [Perreault] a few times about what way he’s leaning or what he’s thinking and he’s done the same with me.”
Strachan also noted that some names could still be added to camp as other SIJHL teams pare down their rosters.
“We’re talking to different teams here and there and there are guys that are becoming available so there could be other changes in that sense, with personnel coming in,” he noted.
The Lakers are also making some plans off the ice, as they have a golf tournament slated for this Saturday at Kitchen Creek Golf Course at 10:30 a.m.
Entry fee is $300 per team or $75 per person.