The last time the Fort Frances Lakers made the CJHL’s top 20 rankings, things didn’t go so well for the local Junior ‘A’ hockey squad.
After being listed at #17 for the week of Oct. 25, the Lakers promptly lost a pair of games—and didn’t look great doing it.
Three weeks later, the Lakers (14-6-1) are back in the top 20, checking in at #16, and head coach Wayne Strachan has a strategy to avoid some complacency going forward.
“I’m not even going to bring it up,” chuckled Strachan, whose team had won five games in a row going into last night’s showdown against the Sioux Lookout Flyers at the Ice For Kids Arena (the score wasn’t known as of press time).
“I’m sure the guys will see it on the computer or hear it around town, but I’m not even going to mention it before [Tuesday’s] game,” he added Monday.
“We’ll just go about our business as usual.”
The past week included a pair of wins over the strong Wisconsin Wilderness, who led the SIJHL in points heading into the week.
Strachan was happy with the victories, but downplayed their importance at this point in the season as the two teams are scheduled to meet six more times.
“They’re obviously one of the top teams points-wise, and a team that will be there in the end,” he remarked.
“It’s good to get these points, but we’re definitely not going to look too much into it because they’re a team in the future that’s going to be tough,” he warned.
Blake Boaz was the hero in last Tuesday night’s 4-3 win over Wisconsin here, notching the tying goal with 4:18 left in the third and then scoring the shootout winner later on.
Then it was Jaret Leclair’s turn to stand out Saturday night in Spooner as the scrappy forward notched a hat trick and an assist in a 6-4 win.
Leclair originally was credited with a four-goal outing, but his late empty-netter was given to Matthew Caulfield instead.
Strachan felt Saturday’s game was a great bounce back for Leclair, acknowledging he hadn’t been overly thrilled with Leclair’s play over the last couple of weeks.
“Saturday night, he put in an unbelievable effort—he actually scored two breakaway goals,” Strachan lauded.
“Then he scored a nice backdoor goal on a feed from Marty McFadden, who joined in on the offence and fed him right cross-crease for his third goal.
“When you work hard, the hockey gods come back to give you some offensive touch,” Strachan reasoned.
“We don’t expect him to put those numbers up all the time, but when the team needs a guy to step up and get the job done, he certainly did that on Saturday.”
Strachan said he was impressed with Leclair until late October, when he noticed a bit of a slide.
Far from coincidentally, it resulted in a bit of a lull for the Lakers, who take a lead from Leclair and other players of his ilk.
“Up until around the ‘Showcase’ time, I thought he was one of our energy guys—a guy that was getting the team going,” Strachan said of Leclair.
“One thing I always say to the team is I know when our team’s on because Jaret and Henry Gutierrez are forechecking like mad men and everyone’s following their lead.”
Strachan said he and the coaching staff aired their concerns with the 19-year-old before the weekend, and were pleased with his response.
In between the two wins over the Wilderness last week, the Lakers nipped host Sioux Lookout 4-3 in overtime Friday night, with Gutierrez notching the game-winner.
The Lakers had jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead in that one. Phil Jennrich opened the scoring at 5:31 with his second goal of the season before Ryin Allison notched his first goal as a Laker at 12:56.
Nelson Rosiak cut the deficit to 2-1 3:27 into the second period but McFadden’s second of the year—a power-play marker at 11:46—restored the Lakers’ two-goal lead.
The Flyers tallied twice in the third to force overtime. Jacob Nolan tallied at 7:57 before former Laker Jake Wentz knotted the game at 14:16.
But Gutierrez salvaged the win with his sixth of the season 2:54 into the extra session, handing the Lakers the extra point.
Markus Leikkari, an associate player called up while Jameson Shortreed was a member of Canada West at the World Jr. ‘A’ Challenge in Penticton, B.C., made 27 saves for Fort Frances while Jesse Wilkins —who already had beaten the Lakers twice this season—turned aside 47 shots in a losing cause.
Wilkins’ performance headlined his acclamation as the SIJHL’s player of the week.
Strachan said he only told Leikkari late Thursday that there was a good chance he would start the following night in Sioux Lookout, but said Leikkari played well in his first SIJHL action in about a year.
“I was confident that he could get the job done, and he performed well on some short notice,” lauded Strachan, adding the defence also played a stellar game out front.
Then in Spooner on Saturday, Leclair opened the scoring at 3:53 of the first.
After Nathan Paulson and Andrew Anderson notched goals to put Wisconsin up 2-1 after one, Leclair tallied the equalizer 47 seconds into the second before Tyler Stevenson put the Lakers ahead with a power-play marker at 9:41.
Leclair completed his hat trick at 17:38 of the frame.
Stevenson then made it 5-2 with another power-play goal at 7:13 of the third.
With the pair, Stevenson now has 22 goals in 21 games—surpassing last season’s total of 21 in 50 games.
As well, 16 of his markers have come with the man advantage.
Wisconsin did make a game of it late. James Kline tallied at 16:37, then Austin Adduono brought the host Wilderness to within one just 58 seconds later.
But Caulfield sealed it with an empty-netter with 38 seconds to go.
Tyler Ampe made 40 saves to earn the win while John McLean turned aside 33 shots for the Wilderness.
The win also spoiled Wisconsin’s perfect home record. The Wilderness had been 8-0-0 at home entering the game.
In related news, the Lakers employed two new forwards in its lineup last week, with Allison and Garrett Nystedt suiting up.
Strachan noted that Allison, who was signed after being released by Neepawa (MJHL) on Oct. 22, will be expected to contribute offensively alongside Byron Katapaytuk and Ryan WIldman.
Nystedt, meanwhile, is making his return to the SIJHL after being acquired from Blind River of the NOJHL on Friday.
Tallying 15 points in 31 games for the Dryden Ice Dogs last year, he is centering a line with Jon Sinclair and Jace Baldwin.
“He’s a guy that wanted to come here and play,” Strachan said of Nystedt. “He adds depth to our forward ranks up front.
“He can contribute offensively, but we can rely on him to penalty kill,” Strachan added.
The Lakers next play Dryden tonight (Nov. 17), then will have a whole week off before they visit Thunder Bay on Nov. 24.