It will be the three-time defending champs against the new kids on the block.
But the Fort Frances Lakers begin their quest for a fourth-straight SIJHL crown in unfamiliar fashion after wrapping up their regular season with a 3-2 loss to the Dryden GM Ice Dogs on Friday night at the Ice For Kids Arena.
After leading the league in points the past three seasons, Fort Frances (24-25-3-4) will play the role of underdog however long its post-season lasts following a fifth-place finish.
That means instead of enjoying a first-round bye, the Lakers face a first-round challenge that begins on the road tomorrow against the expansion Thief River Falls Norskies (30-21-2-3) in Game 1 of their best-of-five “Survivor Series.”
Game 2 also will be in Thief River Falls on Wednesday before the series shifts back here for Game 3 on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Game 4, if necessary, will go here Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with Game 5 (if needed) back in Thief River Falls next Monday (March 27).
The winner advances to face the first-place Ice Dogs (45-7-4) in the best-of-seven semi-finals.
Thief River Falls was bumped out of third despite a 6-5 win over the last-place Minnesota Iron Rangers (7-46-3) on Saturday in Hoyt Lakes.
That's because the English River Miners (31-2-1-3) nipped them by a single point after earning a 3-1 win over the second-place Thunder Bay North Stars in what was a preview of their eventual showdown in the other semi-final series.
The Lakers won the season series 6-5 against Thief River Falls, and outscored the Norskies 36-31, but lost the past three games by a combined margin of 11-3.
Fort Frances opened the scoring at 2:09 of the second period when Fort native and affiliate player Ian Tookenay recorded his first SIJHL assist in helping Ryan Gazich set up Dylan Kooner.
SIJHL goal-scoring leader Braeden Allkins netted his 53rd of the season at 14:35.
Kooner then fired his second goal of the night, and team-leading 37th, with 55 seconds left in the frame.
With forwards Jack Bernie (shoulder) and Julian Uhryniuk (head) going down during the game, the Lakers looked to be on the defensive for most of the third.
Matt Leniuk tied the game at 6:07 before Matthew Pitchenese, Tookenay's teammate on the Midget 'AAA' Kenora Thistles this past season, scored his first career Junior 'A' goal at 15:02.
Patrick Zubick posted 25 saves to earn the win while Brandon Bodnar took the loss despite turning aside 34 shots.