Wayne Strachan has liked how his team plays in the final 40 minutes of games.
It’s the first 20 that could use some improvement.
Continued slow starts were the theme last week as the Fort Frances Lakers dropped a trio of games in which they had to play catchup in all of them.
The Lakers lost a 6-2 road decision to the Thief River Falls Norskies last Tuesday and followed that up with a 6-5 overtime and 1-0 setback to the expansion Wisconsin Lumberjacks in a home-and-home series on Friday and Saturday.
“It’s not acceptable. Both our games this week we haven’t been prepared mentally to play,” Strachan, the Lakers’ head coach and general manager, fumed after the overtime loss to the Lumberjacks on Friday at the Ice For Kids Arena.
“I don’t know the reasoning behind it but we have no one to blame but ourselves for our two losses this week.
“As good as it is tonight for us to battle back and give ourselves the opportunity to have success in the game, it’s our start that hurts us and, like I said, we’re the only ones that can put the blame on our shoulders,” he reasoned.
“We gotta be better in the first periods of games.”
Just three days after falling behind early en route to a loss against the Norskies (4-4-1), the Lakers got off to another poor start against the Lumberjacks where they had to battle back and just fell short here on Friday night.
Kayle Bocken scored a highlight-reel goal just 20 seconds into overtime to lift the Lumberjacks (2-5-1) to their first-ever SIJHL victory.
Tyler Shetland scored twice and added an assist while Cade Moreland, Joel Matthews, and Ryan Green also tallied for Wisconsin.
The line of Stone Stelzl, Ben Hoefler, and Tyler Malpass had a big night in breaking out with seven points combined in the loss for the Lakers (4-4-1).
Stelzl and Hoefler both scored twice and added a helper each while Malpass had the lone assist. Captain Noah Loveday had the other goal for Fort Frances.
Moreland and Matthews both tallied within the first four minutes to put the Lumberjacks in the driver’s seat early in Friday night’s game.
After Green extended the lead to three with a power-play marker, Loveday got a lucky one for the Lakers as he coralled the bounce of Jack Lane’s shot off the glass behind the Lumberjacks’ net and fired one in just over the right pad of Nathan Mueller to trim it to 3-1 after 20 minutes.
That spelled the end of the night for Lakers’ goalie Dylan Kosik, who was lifted in favour of Alex Bugeja to start the second period.
The Lumberjacks came out quickly to go ahead 4-1 just a minute-and-a-half into the second as Shetland flew down the ice and roofed one for his first SIJHL marker.
The Lakers got two back off the stick of Hoefler, including a splendid skate-to-stick effort and one with a quick in-and-out move, to make it a one-goal game.
Skating four-on-four, Wisconsin countered that with Shetland securing his second of the evening just a couple shifts later to put the Lumberjacks ahead by two.
Stelzl forced a turnover in his own zone before skating up the left side and cutting in on goal and snapping one high and in at 15:36 to make it 5-4 after 40 minutes.
He then helped force extra time midway through the third as his second of the evening came during a goal-mouth scramble, with Malpass and Hoefler picking up assists on the play.
“I liked the way the line of Stelzl-Hoefler-Malpass came together over the weekend,” Strachan enthused.
In extra time, Dalton Garcia collected his second helper of the night as he got the puck back to Bocken, who darted up the ice through two Fort Frances defenders into the low slot and lifted a backhand high into the top right-hand corner to secure win No. 1 for the Lumberjacks.
Mueller made 34 saves to earn the win in that one.
Kosik allowed three goals-against on 15 shots while Bugeja made 24 saves to take the loss in lengthy relief.
On Saturday night, Green’s goal just under five minutes into the second period proved to be the winner as the Lumberjacks blanked the Lakers at the Spooner Civic Center to sweep the home-and-home series.
After a scoreless first period, Nicholas Solema fired a pass from his own zone that sent the Lumberjacks out on a 3-on-1, where Garcia put one on the tape of Green who promptly wired one from the slot high over Bugeja to give Mueller all the offence he would need.
Mueller turned aside all 25 shots he faced to nab his first-ever SIJHL shutout for the Lumberjacks.
Bugeja was stellar in making 42 saves in a losing cause for the Lakers.
“Alex Bugeja had a strong game Saturday,” lauded Strachan. “We had our share of opportunities, we just didn’t bare down on some of our best.
“We need to cycle and control pucks, be patient, and open up scoring chances,” he stressed.
The third-place Lakers were slated to resume action last night at home against the second-place Red Lake Miners (5-2), with the outcome not known as of press time.
Then they’ll wrap up the week with another home game on Friday against the top-ranked Thunder Bay North Stars (7-1) at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Strachan knows the challenge ahead will be no easy task for the hosts.
“We need high energy and we have to start challenging one another in practice,” he urged.
“We have to fine-tune our special teams.”
On the injury front, local forward Cooper Witherspoon is likely still a week way from returning to the Lakers’ lineup.
As well, defenceman Jarrett Blaase could be out for two more weeks, according to Strachan. Both players are recovering from upper-body injuries.