‘Last-minute’ Lakers do it again

Lucas Punkari

While they’ve yet to have that full 60-minute performance head coach Wayne Strachan wants to see, the Fort Frances Lakers are becoming experts in the art of late-game heroics.
Five of the Lakers’ six wins have been in come-from-behind fashion, with the two latest being a 3-2 overtime win here Friday against the Thunder Bay North Stars and then a 6-5 triumph over the host Sioux Lookout Flyers the following night.
“It is tough to watch sometimes but when you can fight back and get the win in a dramatic manner, we’ll take the two points,” Strachan said.
“Those type of wins builds some character in the room and it’s always a lot better feeling than losing,” he reasoned.
“I’m not really sure what it is with these come-from-behind wins,” admitted Lakers’ forward Adam Wensley.
“We just somehow find a way to battle back.
“But we need to play a full 60 minutes because if we play 60 minutes, we have a good team and we can go a long way,” he added.
Playing their first game since a 6-2 win over the host Duluth Clydesdales back on Sept. 25, the Lakers found themselves trailing the visiting North Stars 2-0 thanks, in large part, to a number of huge saves by Thunder Bay goalie Mikkel Bilodeau.
“He played really good,” said Lakers’ forward Jordan Larson, who was one of many stymied by Bilodeau through the first 40 minutes of play.
“He made lots of big saves on our power play and kept them in the game and ahead until we came back in the third period,” Larson noted.
After a fight between Laker Wayne Folster and the North Stars’ Devin Fullum near the six-minute mark of the third period, momentum started to slowly turn in favour of the hosts, with Larson cutting the deficit to one by scoring on a backhander in front of the net with nearly eight minutes left in the frame.
“Me, Wensley, and Davis [Smith] were just cycling the puck down low there and we were doing a pretty good job at that,” Larson recalled.
“The puck just popped up right onto my stick and I was just able to put it top [shelf] and into the net,” he added.
The Lakers then had the extra attacker on the ice to try and knot things up in the final minute of play. And after the North Stars iced the puck with 26 seconds to go, Strachan called a time-out to devise a plan for his team to force overtime.
“We drew up our initial plan that I wanted them to do and I said to them, ‘Boys, we worked hard in the last four and five minutes to get into the game and let’s tie it up and win it in overtime,’ and that was basically all that I said,” Strachan remarked.
The plan worked as with 14.2 seconds left in regulation, a point shot from Connor Hady found its way through traffic and into the back of the net to tie the game at 2-2.
“All I was really trying to do was to just throw the puck on net,” Hady explained.
“We won the face-off there and the puck came out of the corner to me and I just fired a shot, which ended up being really lucky to get through everyone and it helped us to eventually get the win,” he reasoned.
Both sides traded scoring chances in the opening minutes of the extra frame until Larson hooked up with Wensley on a nice play to give the Lakers their second-straight win.
“I just came down the wing after getting the pass from Marty [McFadden] and was able to beat the one defenceman,” explained Larson, who had three points on the night and continues to lead the SIJHL in scoring with 18.
“And as the other defenceman came over, that left Wensley wide-open in front of the net.
“The puck actually came off my stick there for a second as I was about to make the pass, so I think I was a little bit lucky there to get the puck back on my stick and help to set up the game-winning goal,” Larson smiled.
“Larson did a good job in walking by three guys on their team and I was just alone when he sent me the cross-ice pass,” said Wensley.
“I was just thinking ‘get the puck on net’ at that point, and in the end it all worked out for me.”
As soon as Wensley netted the game-winner, he quickly found himself being mobbed by his teammates and was on the bottom of a dog-pile the Lakers created in celebration of their victory.
“The top half of my body was all right, but my legs were getting crushed a little bit,” Wensley laughed.
Slow start again
Another slow start for the Lakers put them behind 3-1 to the Flyers after 20 minutes on Saturday night in Sioux Lookout, and also led to starting goalie Tanner Hamilton being pulled in favour of Tyler Ampe.
Despite outshooting the Flyers 21-8 margin in the second period, the Lakers still found themselves trailing 4-2 going into the final frame.
“I wouldn’t say that we were totally off our game in the first [period] as we did have our opportunities to score, but we just weren’t taking advantage of our chances,” Strachan noted.
“Defensively, I thought we were a little bit sloppy and Sioux Lookout was able to capitalize on that.
“So after the first period, we just regrouped and discussed the things that we needed to get a little better at.
“I also tried to light a fire under a few of the guys to get them to respond, and they did that in the second period,” added Strachan.
“But thanks to their goalie [Jayme Brattengeier], they were able to hold onto the lead.”
The Lakers’ offence exploded in a huge way in the final 20 minutes, however, as the team scored four goals to take a 6-5 win.
Wensley skated in all alone to notch the game-winner for the second-straight night with a little more than a minute to go.
“It was kind of like Friday night a little bit as I thought that maybe Adam wasn’t having one of his better games,” Strachan said.
“But he’s got a knack for the net, which is why we got him here, and he had the hot hand for the weekend to put the puck in the net when we needed it.”
While the offence was led by three-point performances from Byron Katapaytuk and Jon Carlson, a key contributor to the cause was Ampe, who made 14 saves in a relief role to help the Lakers get the win.
In addition to his performance on Saturday, Ampe made 37 saves in Friday night’s overtime win over the North Stars, which helped him earn the SIJHL’s player-of-the-week honours.
“In the beginning of the season, we had to talk to Tyler a little bit about his focus,” noted Strachan. “But I think he’s been coming around now and he’s been very steady all year.
“He’s able to make those huge saves when you need him, and on Friday night when we battled back to make it 2-2, he was able to make a couple of huge saves on scrambles in front of the net.
“On Saturday night when we brought him into the game, it wasn’t because Tanner was playing bad as he made a number of huge saves,” Strachan stressed.
“I just wanted to change things up to get the guys going.
“Once again, Tyler came in and made the saves that we needed him to make, and that kept us in the game until we were able to get some chances to put the puck into the net.”
In related news, the Lakers earned an honourable mention in the CJHL top 20 rankings this week, which marks their first appearance so far this season.
After hosting the expansion Iron Range Ironheads last night (the outcome wasn’t known as of press time), the Lakers will be back action again tonight as they travel back to Sioux Lookout for a 7:30 p.m. contest.
The Lakers then will welcome the Duluth Clydesdales to the Ice For Kids Arena here Friday night before hosting the Dryden Ice Dogs next Tuesday (Oct. 18).
The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. for both games.