Wins bump Lakers into national ranking

Dan Falloon

The Fort Frances Lakers are sitting atop the SIJHL standings—and the Canadian Junior Hockey League has recognized that, as well.
In its weekly rankings released Monday, the Lakers (9-5-0) cracked the top 20 for the first time in franchise history, entering the list at No. 17 as the only team from the SIJHL loop.
The expansion Wisconsin Wilderness (8-2-1) received an honourable mention—a recognition the Lakers achieved for the week of Oct. 4.
The Fort William North Stars (9-4-0), a mainstay on the list, were nowhere to be found after dropping all three of their games this past weekend, including a 3-1 decision to the Lakers on Saturday.
That game was part of the SIJHL’s “showcase” weekend in Spooner, Wis., which the Lakers had opened with a 1-0 shutout over the expansion Duluth Clydesdales on Friday.
The other national recognition the Lakers achieved was goalie Jameson Shortreed being named to Team West, which will compete in the World Junior ‘A’ Challenge in Penticton, B.C. from Nov. 8-14.
The roster was officially announced Monday.
Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan said the 17-year-old will leave sometime next week, and that Tyler Ampe will shoulder the load while the defending SIJHL goalie-of-the-year is away.
“Obviously we’re not in panic mode that we have to bring someone in because we’re definitely confident Tyler Ampe can do the job,” Strachan stressed.
“But if he does need a break for whatever reason, we should have somebody that could complement him and get the job done for the team, too.
“In the span that Jameson won’t be here, we’ll only play four games, maybe five,” he added.
To keep fresh, Shortreed was slated to start last night’s game here against Dryden while Ampe will be plugged in for Thursday night’s game against Sioux Lookout.
Thanks in large part to Shortreed, the Lakers continued to own the expansion Clydesdales, beating them for the third-straight time.
Only six penalties were called in the relatively low-key affair, although four went against the Lakers, including a 27-second 5-on-3 midway though the second period.
Jordan Sinclair eventually tallied the lone goal of the game with 2:40 to go, getting the puck past Duluth goalie Jeff Dunaisky, who stopped the 26 other attempts he faced.
“It took us a while to buy a goal, and the goal that actually did go in was pretty ugly but it got the job done for us,” Strachan recalled.
“We played a strong forechecking, aggressive pressure game, and we caused a lot of turnovers and had a lot of opportunities,” he noted.
“Their goalie stood on his head for them.”
Since Sinclair’s second goal of the season came even-strength, the Lakers’ streak of 10-straight games with a power-play goal was snapped.
Defensively, Shortreed did everything he could do, turning aside all 22 shots fired his way.
“They [Duluth] did have a couple good opportunities on a 5-on-3 but Jameson Shortreed made two huge saves,” lauded Strachan, adding Shortreed also stymied a pair of third-period breakaways.
“Those were probably the four best chances they had to score and Jameson turned everything aside.”
All in all, Strachan called Friday’s win the Lakers’ finest effort of the season.
“It was, in my opinion, our best game as a team with everyone rolling,” he remarked.
Saturday’s game saw the Lakers in a familiar spot when on the road—down one in the first period.
Dan Usiski scored to give Fort William the 1-0 lead at 15:54, but only after the Lakers faltered after a strong start.
“The first period we came out flying,” Strachan said. “We controlled the play for about the first six or seven minutes.
“[But] we quit doing what we were doing,” he noted. “We started to make some bad decisions with what we were doing with the puck and not paying the price in the one-on-one battles.
“A costly turnover got us down in the first period,” he said of Usiski’s goal.
“We regrouped, had a little heart-to-heart after the first period,” Strachan added.
The content of that talk was one of stressing the team was on the North Stars’ level—a sermon that started to take hold midway through the game.
“We wanted to get the message of believing we could play with the North Stars and having the confidence to play with them,” Strachan explained.
“We’re just as good a team, or better, when we want to play as a team,” he stressed.
Jaret Leclair netted his fourth of the year, equalling his total from last season, to tie the game at 12:19 of the second.
Henry Gutierrez then notched his fourth of the season past Jay Pelletier just 23 seconds into the third—and it proved to be the game-winner.
Strachan said the goal was well-deserved as Gutierrez, Davis Smith, and Matt Caulfield had been buzzing all weekend without success.
Captain Tyler Stevenson later got the Lakers started on a new power-play streak, notching his league-leading 14th at 3:13 to give Fort Frances some insurance.
Speaking of special teams streaks, the Lakers extended their run of perfect penalty killing to 11-straight games, denying Fort William’s three chances on Saturday.
Ampe made 25 saves for the Lakers while Pelletier turned aside 34 shots for Fort William.
Once the Lakers got back on track, each player was doing exactly what they were supposed to be, working pretty much like clockwork.
“I can’t really praise anyone for standing out because there was dedication of everyone doing the job,” Strachan said.
“Whatever line we put out or whatever players we put out in the situations, they rose to the occasion and, obviously, got the job done.”
Strachan said even though Fort William uncharacteristically lost all three games this weekend, they didn’t look like a team in turmoil on Saturday.
Rather, he said his team just flat out played better—a vast improvement over a 7-3 spanking the Lakers had taken the Saturday before in Thunder Bay.
“Against us, they played a typical North Star game—they competed hard, they had their opportunities, and Tyler Ampe shut the door,” Strachan noted.
“They were their big, physical selves.
“I don’t think we really changed anything from the week before other than putting in a much solider effort,” he added.
“Obviously, our goaltending was at its best this weekend.”
The showcase event gave players the chance to display their skills for NCAA scouts from both Division I and Division III schools.
“There were many, many scouts in the stands for different schools, and to put their best performance on was probably the best thing they could have done, and they definitely did,” Strachan said.
“It’s good for the team.
“We’re here to promote our guys and to try to develop them and install the confidence, and develop them hockey-wise to play at the next level,” he added.
“When your team is having success, it brings more opportunities for everyone,” Strachan reasoned.
“The higher ranks tend to bring in winners.”
Strachan added some Division I schools contacted him about Shortreed while some Division III programs were in touch about several Lakers.
The “showcase” weekend also included a meeting in which representatives from each of the six SIJHL teams discussed several topics pertaining to the league.
Strachan said topics ranged from attempts to grow interest in the league to potential expansion for the 2011-12 season.
Meanwhile, after five-straight games away from home, the Lakers returned to the Ice For Kids Arena last night to face the Dryden Ice Dogs (the score was not available as of press time).
Then they’ll wrap up the mini-homestand tomorrow (Oct. 28) at 7:30 p.m. against the Sioux Lookout Flyers.