After a rough month of January, the tides appear to be turning for the Fort Frances Lakers.
The Lakers compiled a 2-1-1 record in four games last week, which was capped off by home-and-home split against the Thief River Falls Norskies over the weekend where they claimed three of a possible four points.
After letting one slip away in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Norskies on Friday night in the opener at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, the Lakers dug deep defensively and gritted out a 2-1 win the following night at the Ice For Kids Arena here to see their record improve to 15-22-3-1.
“We just wanted to bounce back from last night, we thought we let one get away from us,” Lakers' head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan said after Saturday's win on home ice.
“We had the lead four times through the game on Friday and didn't close the deal and it was a tough pill to swallow. We had a bit of a heart-to-heart talk throughout the day [today] and we just need to keep believing in what we've set out to do here, our identity, the 'Laker way' and if we believe in that and continue to work hard, good things are gonna happen.”
A good work ethic was needed for the Lakers on Saturday night here as a tightly-called game by the officials led to special teams needing to come up big.
The Lakers' penalty kill shone, killing off all seven Norskies' power plays while the squad also came up empty on five man-advantage opportunities of their own.
After a mostly back and forth first period, Tyler Johnson put the visitors on the board first with 1:55 to go as he took a drop pass from linemate Joe Collins and fired a shot over the glove of Lakers' goalie Dean Bucholz.
Kyle Uzelman, who was named the SIJHL's Play It Again Sports Player of the Week on Monday for the period ending Feb. 9, drew the Lakers level nearly 13 minutes into the second as he took a feed from captain Noah Loveday in the slot and potted it past Norskies' goalie Joshua Seeley.
“We've been playing a much better stretch of hockey I think and it was nice to reward the home fans for all of their support with a nice 2-1 win,” Loveday said after the game.
“It was a hard-fought win and I think we had a lot of fun out there.”
Loveday then came up big for his side once again early in the third and he cut in through the Norskies' (23-18-3) defence, made a pass to Ethan Carlson-Jourdain at the left board and he sniped one over Seeley's glove for the game-winner just 24 seconds in.
Buchholz made 32 saves to record the win while Seeley turned aside 33 shots in taking the loss for the Norskies.
“The boys earned this tonight, a good team win,” Strachan lauded.
“We stayed composed. Both teams probably got some penalties that weren't deserved, but in the end we battled, Dean made some big saves to secure the victory and—for the most part—we played a pretty smart hockey game.”
The night prior, the Lakers fell in the shootout at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in the opener despite holding a lead over the Norskies four different times throughout regulation time.
A free-wheeling first period saw the two teams combine for five goals, including three by Fort Frances.
After Peyton Hughes gave the Lakers an early lead, Jack Michels bagged his 25th of the campaign for the Norskies at 10:37 to knot it at 1-1.
Answering quickly, Uzelman put the visitors back on top only to see Michels strike once more as his second of the night levelled the game yet again.
The Lakers answered that in the final minute of the opening frame when Carlson-Jourdain picked up his sixth of the year to make it 3-2.
The see-saw affair continued into the second as Justin Schwartzmiller (power play) connected for the Norskies while Flynn Perry chipped in with an even-strength effort to put the Lakers (15-22-3-1) up 4-3 after 40 minutes.
Special teams then helped Thief River Falls force overtime 6:24 into the third as Nick Harder provided the equalizer while up a skater.
After a scoreless overtime, extra shots were needed to determine a winner and there, Johnson was the only one to connect to help give his team the additional point on the night.
Seth Purcilly made 32 stops to earn the win for the Norskies while Alex Bugeja's 45 saves helped the Lakers get one point in the narrow setback.
“Some of the penalties we took last night were not necessary, I guess, and it hurt us,” Strachan said on Saturday of Friday's game in Thief River Falls.
"Two of the three power-play goals they scored were just little errors on our part, not taking care of the front of the net or not getting back to the front of the net as quick as we can.
“So we addressed those things," he added. "Defensively we gotta continue to tighten up in certain areas and if we're gonna keep this [success] going and have any chance of success in the playoffs, we're gonna have to win these one-goal games and when we have leads, secure them.”
The Lakers, who currently sit in last place in the six-team SIJHL, were slated to resume action last night against the host second-place Red Lake Miners (27-12-3-2), with the outcome not known as of press time.
Fort Frances then will host those same Miners on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Then on Monday (Feb. 17), the Lakers will welcome the fifth-place expansion Wisconsin Lumberjacks (18-23-3-1) in a Family Day matinee game at 2:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.