Strachan finds lots of positives despite missing first SIJHL title

Lucas Punkari

Although his team was unable to cash in on three chances to capture their first SIJHL title in franchise history, Fort Frances Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan found a lot of positives in the 2011-12 campaign.
“Obviously, it hurts to be that close and not be able to win it all,” he admitted.
“But if you were to tell to me at the start of the season that we would be in a seventh game to win the title, I would take it.
“For the guys that have been here for a long time and been through it all here, I think the steps we’ve made this season have done a lot for this team and it helps us a lot going forward,” Strachan added.
Still, the Lakers fell short of achieving their final goal for the season. The team saw their 3-1 series lead fall by the wayside last Wednesday night in Spooner as the host Wisconsin Wilderness earned a 4-3 win in the seventh-and-deciding game of the SIJHL final to win their second-straight Bill Salonen Cup.
The Wilderness had momentum in the first half of the game as a pair of goals from Nick Drill and another from Mike Dietrich gave the home team an early 3-0 lead.
“Our plan was to get a quick start and build on it, and we were able to do just that,” said Wilderness head coach Rod Aldoff.
“We went into this game wanting to do the same things that we had done all year long that made us successful, and I think that’s what helped us get that nice cushion early on, which I believe was the key to the win,” he added.
“I thought that we played well in the first couple of periods,” noted Strachan. “But we made a couple of costly turnovers in our own end, which led to their goals and put us behind by three goals.”
After Henry Gutierrez spoiled the shutout bid of Wilderness goalie Tanner Milliron with just six seconds left in the second period, SIJHL player-of-the-year Byron Katapaytuk cut the deficit to a single goal early in the third.
But Dietrich fired his second goal of the night past Lakers’ netminder Tyler Ampe a few minute later to regain the Wilderness’ two-goal cushion.
Fort Frances continued to put the pressure on over the rest of the period, with Jordan Christianson scoring during an 6-on-5 situation with 70 seconds left in the game.
The Lakers were unable to get any closer, however.
“Over the second and third period, I thought we put a lot of pressure on them,” Strachan recalled.
“But we also took a few costly penalties late that cost us in the comeback bid.”
While the Lakers’ have hung up their equipment for the season, the Wilderness are in Thunder Bay this week for the Dudley Hewitt Cup, where they’ll be taking on the host Thunder Bay North Stars, the NOJHL champion Soo Thunderbirds, and the OJHL title-winning Stouffville Spirit.
After finishing last year’s tournament with an 0-2-1 mark, and just missing out on a semi-final berth after losing to the Soo (Mich.) Eagles in a quadruple-overtime thriller, Aldoff feels the experience the team learned from that event should help them out this year.
“We have a number of guys who are back from last year’s team, so they know what to expect and they can help the guys who haven’t been there before,” he reasoned.
“This is a tournament that you need to come out firing on all cylinders, and that’s the message I’ll be giving out to the guys all week,” Aldoff added.
The Lakers’ organization, meanwhile, already is hitting the recruiting trail to find the players who will fill in the role of the departing players from this year’s squad, with 10 members of the team (Ampe, defencemen Josh Scott, Brandon Fehd, Steve Terry, and Dalen Porter, and forwards Gutierrez, Katapaytuk, Jaret Leclair, Blake Boaz and Adam Wensley) all graduating from the junior ranks.
“Along with those guys, we could also be potentially losing another three or four players from this year’s team due to other opportunities,” Strachan added.
“We’ve actually been already looking hard for the players that will be filling in those roles of the players that will be leaving, and we’ve also had players contact us back in February to be a part of the team.
“Going as deep as we did in the playoffs also helps out a lot [when] it comes to the recruiting process, and a lot of that comes from the effort from those players that are graduating from the team and have been here since the rough early days for the club,” Strachan stressed.