Status quo should prevail in semi-finals

Often in the world of hockey, the best teams in the regular season fail to win out in the playoffs.
Just ask the Ferris State Bulldogs, who were one of the top teams in the NCAA all season but fell in their conference quarter-finals Sunday to the Bowling Green Falcons—a team that won just won five games in conference play.
But in the SIJHL, other than the Fort Frances Lakers winning the 1 vs. 2 “showdown series” over the regular-season champion Wisconsin Wilderness, the front-runners have been the best thus far in the post-season, with the top four teams set to battle it out in the best-of-seven semi-finals starting Friday.
And with all due respect to the Dryden Ice Dogs and Thunder Bay North Stars, and with the risk that this column might be used as bulletin board fodder in their locker-rooms, the Lakers and Wilderness should be facing off for the Bill Salonen Cup in a couple weeks’ time.
By having first choice for their semi-final opponent as a result of their “showdown series” win here Saturday night, the Lakers elected to go up against the Ice Dogs in what is a rematch of the past two seasons, which the Ice Dogs won both times in six games.
Given their recent struggles against Dryden, it may seem at first glance like a bit of a surprise that the Lakers opted to choose the Ice Dogs as their opponents instead of the North Stars, which is something my predecessor here at the Times’ sports desk (Dan Falloon) expressed to me over the weekend.
To me, though, it’s a damned if you do and a damned if you don’t scenario.
While the Ice Dogs have had the upper hand on the Lakers over the years, they are the lowest-seeded team of the four in the semi-finals. And even though the Lakers have had the upper hand over the North Stars in recent times, Thunder Bay has become a much stronger team over the last few weeks since Lonny Bohonis took over behind the bench from long-time coach Todd Howarth.
While there was a stretch in mid-season when Dryden had the upper hand, the Lakers beat the Ice Dogs both at home and on the road during the final month of the regular season, so the mental block that head coach Wayne Strachan has referred to on occasion with regards to their struggles against their northern rivals may be a thing of the past.
With an offence that boasts league MVP Byron Katapaytuk and rookie-of-the-year Jordan Larson, among others, the firepower the Lakers possess is tough for any team to match, especially for one like the Ice Dogs, who were involved in some high-scoring affairs with the Sioux Lookout Flyers in the quarter-finals.
However, Dryden head coach Joe West has said from the outset of the campaign that he was coaching his team with the mindset that they were going to be their very best come playoff time, which is message no one should take lightly.
Nevertheless, the momentum the Lakers gained as a result of beating the Wilderness in the “showdown series” can’t be ignored, as that has given them a big boost in the confidence department.
For me, that should be the extra push they need to defeat the Ice Dogs, although I have a feeling Dryden could push the series to six games.
Over in the other semi-final, the defending champion Wilderness should be raring to go Friday night in Spooner, as they’ll be looking to avenge their loss this past weekend to the Lakers with the North Stars being the “lamb to the slaughter.”
However, Thunder Bay has defeated Wisconsin twice this season, which is something very few teams can boast. And as mentioned earlier, their play has improved as of late.
The North Stars also possess one of the top goalies in the league in Marc Nother, who has been a great pick-up since being acquired from the Wellington Dukes, last year’s Dudley Hewitt Cup champs.
That said, however, Wisconsin has the best goalie in the SIJHL this season (Tanner Milliron), has offensive firepower that can be downright scary at times, and hold a huge advantage that is still amazing to believe.
After 28 regular-season games and two playoff ones, the Wilderness possess an incredible 30-0 record at home ice, turning the Northwest Sports Complex into an impenetrable fortress.
Thunder Bay should give them a run but when push comes to shove, I’m taking the Wilderness to win the series in five games and set the stage for another showdown with the Lakers that everyone has been expecting for months.
But remember, nobody had Bowling Green defeating Ferris State last weekend, either.

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