The Fort Frances Lakers managed to impress the scouts—and pick up the points they wanted at the same time.
A 2-1 record at the annual “SIJHL Showcase” last week in Hoyt Lakes and Virginia, Mn. was the short-term end result of one of the Lakers’ two busiest stretches of the season.
The long-term benefits still may be to come.
“I spoke with many schools in regards to our team and players throughout the week,” Lakers’ head coach and general manger Wayne Strachan said about his interactions with the various college, professional, and junior scouts on hand for the three-day event.
“Pretty much all of the coaches watching commented on our team’s play and what we could do as a team,” he noted.
“Numerous players had the chance to speak with several different schools, so it was a good turnout from scouts and we have a number of players with opportunities to further their goals of education and hockey,” Strachan added.
The Lakers opened play by nipping the Thunder Bay North Stars 3-2 in a shootout last Tuesday (Jan. 26).
Thunder Bay (20-18-0-3) is the only SIJHL team with a winning record against Fort Frances this season—having won five of the first eight meetings, including the last three.
It was almost four in a row after Jake Robinson put the North Stars ahead 2-1 with just 4:45 left in the third period following goals by Thunder Bay’s Brad Thrower (first period) and the Lakers’ Nolan Ross (second period).
Enter Nick Minerva, who was back from his one-game suspension for a spearing incident against the Dryden GM Ice Dogs back on Jan. 16.
Minerva drilled a shot past Eric Mann some 91 seconds after Robinson’s marker to send the game to overtime.
“I think after the first period versus the Stars, we settled down and realized we needed to just . . . play our game and adhere to our systems to raise eyes in the building,” said Strachan.
“Despite our woes in the scoring department, I believe we offered a good showing for them to get a read on our abilities,” he added.
“We had trouble scoring [last] week and Eric Mann was the reason the game was close,” Strachan noted.
“We outplayed and outworked them and could not solve him.
“Another goal for them could have been disaster for us,” he conceded.
“[But] the boys never gave up, they stayed positive, and Nick rose to the occasion with a big goal to tie the game and give us a shot to get a much-needed two points.”
The shootout played out almost exactly the same as three days earlier against the Minnesota Iron Rangers.
Lakers’ goalie Pierce Dushenko stoned Nicholas Nigro, Thrower, and Kristopher Hamlin before Nolan Ross once again came through in the third round to put the game away.
With the win, the Lakers improved to 5-1 in SIJHL play since the arrival of Ross and his twin brother, Davis, at the CJHL trade deadline, along with forward Matt Tustin.
“The little things is what I notice with [the Ross brothers] the most, whether it is patience with the puck, making solid plays, winning face-off, or using the boards for indirect passes,” Strachan lauded.
“They know and understand the game,” he added. “Nolan has come up big for us in shootouts, and Davis has scored and set up some nice goals.
“I believe we actually won’t see the biggest contributions [from them] until the games get more meaningful,” Strachan predicted.
Next up for the Lakers was an inter-league battle between two of the top 10 teams in the CJHL’s top 20 weekly rankings entering the “Showcase.”
At No. 8, the Cochrane Crunch (NOJHL) were right behind the Lakers (No. 7). Yet Fort Frances held the upper hand on the top team in the NOJHL’s East Division (32-7-2-2), outshooting them 36-21 for the game.
But it took less than 20 seconds worth of breakdowns late in the second period to sink the Lakers.
Seamus Maguire and Hunter Atchison busted out on a 2-on-1, with Atchison burying Maguire’s feed high to the short side behind Dushenko at 18:20 of the middle frame.
Just 17 seconds later, Maguire jumped on a turnover in the Lakers’ zone and put the puck in almost the exact same spot.
Crunch goalie Brett Young, who leads the NOJHL with 20 wins this season, stopped all 36 puck sent his way to earn the shutout.
“We deserved better on this day . . . we played possibly our best game of the year,” noted Strachan.
“In the second, if they got into our end 10 times, I would be surprised,” he added. “But two glaring mistakes or turnovers and that is the difference in the hockey game.
“It was a game of pride and we wanted to prove ourselves,” stressed Strachan. “I believe we did and more.
“We outskated, we outworked, outchanced them, but the bottom line is we did not give in or give up after a heart-breaking 17 seconds at the end of the second,” he lauded.
“To re-watch the video and see our chances we created, it’s hard to believe we did not win this game,” Strachan remarked.
“But [Young] definitely was focused and prepared for the game.”
Still, Strachan took plenty of positives from the loss.
“I believe this was good for two reasons,” he said. “It shows us we can play with another top team in the CJHL.
“Second, it showed us if we put everything on the line and play our game, what we can do for 60 minutes as a team.
“Even though we came out on the wrong end, we can grow from this game in hopes of getting another opportunity to prove ourselves in the league and beyond,” Strachan reasoned.
The Lakers then had to put their noses to the grindstone to pull out a 4-3 victory over the English River Miners (9-27-1-4) in their final game at the “Showcase” last Thursday.
Fort Frances twice had to come back from one-goal deficits.
Dustin Deugau, who missed nine weeks with a shoulder injury, broke a 10-game scoring slump with the game-winner at 11:44 of the third after pinching in from the point.
“It was good to see Dustin get this one and he was visually excited about it,” Strachan said about the 19-year-old blueliner from Calgary.
“He just comes to play and work every day, nothing flashy, but contributes every game in some manner with his play,” added Strachan.
“He gives us more depth when he is in the lineup and makes us a more solid defence corps when dressed.”
SIJHL rookie scoring leader Cole Tymkin, Jason Wilson, and A.J. Rupert also scored for the Lakers while Dylan Robertson had three assists to boost his overall league-leading points total to 49.
Brandon Bodnar had 25 saves to earn the win.
Strachan didn’t believe fatigue was much of a factor in his team getting pushed to the limit by the SIJHL’s cellar-dwellers.
“There was a time in the third where we got a little foolish with the puck and had some bad turnovers in which we allowed them to get momentum,” he conceded.
“But I believe their coach yelling, ‘They are tired, want it more’ to his players motivated us to stick with our game and keep doing what we were doing,” Strachan said.
“Again, the game was close because of their goalie and our inability to solve him,” he noted.
“Most of the play was in their end and they were on their heels for the better part of 60 minutes.”
The Lakers, meanwhile, will continue to be without veteran defenceman Robbie Bonthron (broken jaw) and forward Dylan Kooner (fractured scapula) for the foreseeable future.
“Robbie’s appointment was moved back a week so I am not sure what we will do yet with him,” said Strachan.
“Dylan is at the doctor in Thunder Bay in hopes of seeing a sports physician for a better read on his injury.“
The Lakers resume action this Friday when they head back to Hoyt Lakes to face the Iron Rangers (14-19-2-2).
Then they’ll host the Miners on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.