It may come down to setting their alarm clocks a half-hour earlier, chugging an extra energy drink in the afternoon, or start praying that the first period is just an exhibition.
“Maybe I’ve got to go in there before the game and scream and yell instead of after the first,” joked Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan.
Any of those solutions would be welcome for the Lakers (2-2), who flat out have not come out to play in the opening frame of late.
That was evident in their three games last week—a 1-0 home loss to Dryden last Tuesday night, followed by a weekend split with the expansion Wisconsin Wilderness.
The Lakers lost 4-3 on the road on Friday, but rebounded from another dreary start to take Saturday’s re-match here by a 5-3 score.
Although the Lakers only have been outscored 3-2 in the first period of games this year, both goals for came in their season-opener against Fort William.
In the following three games, Fort Frances has allowed the first goal.
“Our first periods are killing us, still,” Strachan remarked. “In four games, we haven’t been able to muster much in the first period.
“We’re looking for solutions to it, but until those guys get into their head to prepare and focus before the games, then we’re going to have to find some answers to get them going,” he stressed.
Dawson Kuhlman tallied on the power play at 8:51 of the first before James Kline extended the lead at 7:53 of the second as Wisconsin jumped out to a 2-0 lead Friday night.
The Lakers did show some fight, however, as Byron Katapaytuk cut into the lead just over two minutes later.
He then set up Ryan Wildman’s equalizer at 7:15 of the third period before giving Fort Frances a 3-2 lead with his third of the season at 12:34.
But Lucas Hendrickson knotted the game just 2:07 later while Cody Hasbargen was in the penalty box.
With the game appearing to head to overtime, Kuhlman tallied his second of the night on Tyler Ampe with just 17 seconds left in regulation to steal the win.
Ampe finished with 29 saves while John McLean made 25 for the Wilderness.
Back on home ice Saturday night, the faithful crowd of 430 couldn’t rouse the locals from their slow-starting ways.
Instead, Wilson Housley was handed the puck in front of an empty cage at 7:10—and he made no mistake putting Wisconsin up 1-0.
Fort Frances finally gave the crowd something to cheer about midway through the second when Jace Baldwin banged home his second of the season at 11:19 before captain Tyler Stevenson later deflected a Phil Jennrich point shot at 16:25 to give the Lakers a 2-1 lead.
Both goals came on the power play.
Stevenson extended the lead with another power-play goal in the third, catching McLean cheating off the post and jamming one past his right foot for his fourth of the season at 8:20.
But Wisconsin surged back with a vengeance as Austin Adduono tallied at 11:02 before Kuhlman knocked home a feed from Nick Szopinski on the power play just 1:38 later.
The Lakers were able to right themselves, however—and Jennrich was the beneficiary.
With 2:02 to go, he took a drop pass from Katapaytuk and wired a wrister past McLean’s glove for his fourth point of the night.
Davis Smith then sealed the deal with his first of the season, picking up a loose puck at the Lakers’ blueline, charging through the neutral zone, and firing home the empty-netter.
Fort Frances went three-for-five on the power play in Saturday’s game while limiting Wisconsin to just one man-advantage tally in 11 chances.
Jameson Shortreed made 28 saves to earn the win while McLean turned aside 26 shots for Wisconsin (2-2).
One disturbing trend for the Lakers was the Wilderness’ ability to draw them to the penalty box. Between the two games, Wisconsin had the man-advantage 16 times.
That included 11 on Saturday, where the Lakers also were handed four misconducts, with three of those for abuse of officials.
“We were very undisciplined throughout the game,” Strachan sighed. “Throughout the game, we took at least six bad penalties.
“A bad penalty ties the game.”
Those tagged for misconducts on Saturday included Stevenson and alternate captain Matt Caulfield (though his was automatic for a checking-to-the-head call).
Despite all the calls, Wisconsin went just three-for-16 with the man advantage for the weekend series.
“It’s something we’ve got to work on, something that we’ve talked about between periods—controlling our emotions,” Strachan noted.
“We’ve got to play the game the proper way, and we can’t take bad penalties to give them opportunities on the power play,” he stressed.
“We were fortunate enough tonight [Saturday] that our ‘PK’ was good all night.”
Strachan said the Lakers wanted to take pride in having the lowest goals against and having the lowest penalty minutes as the SIJHL’s most disciplined team.
“Over the past two games, we’ve definitely racked up both,” he remarked.
The Lakers were aided especially by a resurgent Katapaytuk, who has been dealing with family issues away from the game.
However, after talking with Strachan late last week, the bulldozing forward found some comfort on the ice with three points Friday night and then creating havoc for Wilderness defenders on Saturday.
“I had family issues going on, so I had stuff on my mind,” noted Katapaytuk, who finished third in team scoring last season with 34 points.
“I figured I’d pick up my game somehow and I did last night [Friday].
“[My goals] got the boys going but the last 17 seconds, when they scored on us, that really hit us,” he added.
“There are no words.”
On a personal level, Strachan is comforted to see Katapaytuk bring the issues forward to work through them. On a professional level, a focused Katapaytuk is an integral part of the team.
“If Byron’s on his game, he’s a horse, and that’s a player we need if our team’s going to be successful throughout the season to lead us,” Strachan stressed.
“He was in the game on the power play. He was making things happen, controlling the tempo out there and creating things offensively.
“It’s good for him and it’s good for the team.”
Friday night saw Ampe’s first regular-season action between the pipes, and Strachan was thrilled with what he saw from his back-up goalie.
“Through the first period-and-a-half, he definitely held us in the game when we weren’t clicking on all cylinders,” Strachan lauded.
“Even when we got up 3-2, he made some huge saves to keep us in the lead.
“It was unfortunate that they got a power-play goal through the screen,” Strachan added. “There was no way he was going to stop the puck. He couldn’t even see it.
“The score was not reflective of his play in net. It’s not his fault that we ended up losing the game.”
Both Wisconsin and Fort Frances seem to have an ability to get under each other’s skin, and Strachan thinks that will make for high drama in their eight remaining meetings.
“There’s a lot of yapping, scrums in front of the net,” he noted. “They’re a good hockey team and we’re going to have to rise to the occasion every time we play them.
“If it’s a new rivalry throughout the season, that’s good for the crowd and good for both teams.”
The Lakers also saw two new players in the lineup this week. Former Wisconsin Mustangs’ forward Jake Wentz and defenceman Connor Hady, formerly of Hermantown High School, saw action in both games against the Wilderness.
Wentz replaced forward Zach McCool while Hady filled in for Josh Scott on Friday and then Hasbargen on Saturday.
The Lakers were in action again last night, facing Dryden here for the second-straight Tuesday night (the score wasn’t known as of press time).
Fort Frances then will square off in another home-and-home series this weekend, facing host Sioux Lookout on Friday night before returning home for the rematch Saturday at 7:30 p.m.