While it didn't show on the scoreboard this past weekend, the Fort Frances Lakers are learning what it takes to play as a team.
The squad let a two-goal second-period lead slip away Friday night en route to a 5-4 overtime loss to the host Thief River Falls Norskies before following that up with a 5-2 setback at the hands of the visiting Red Lake Miners the next night at the Ice For Kids Arena here.
Red Lake made a habit of scrumming it up in front of the net and by the boards at the end of each play Saturday, which eventually led to tensions boiling over in the third period.
Brett Hahkala “dropped the mitts” with the Miners' Ryan Patterson in a spirited tussle before teammate Cole Allan sparred off against Morgan Venne a shift later.
Those fights didn't change the outcome of the game but it showed a sense of togetherness and fight the Lakers will need as they gear up for the SIJHL playoffs.
“After the second [period], we had a good talk,” Lakers' head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan said after the game.
“And we [also] asked the boys a few questions throughout the week here, and one of them was about improvements where each and every guy could improve to benefit the team,” he noted.
“We just discussed that it can't start tomorrow, it can't start next week or in a month, because that's too late. It's gotta start for the third period,” he stressed.
“Through the third, we win the period, we stand up for one another, we're together as brothers and a family, and it's good to see,” Strachan enthused.
“We'll take that as a positive and we'll move forward into Monday's practice and prepare for Tuesday here.”
The Lakers, who currently sit in fifth place in the six-team SIJHL with a 13-23-2-1 record, resumed action last night against the second-place Miners (27-13-2-0) at the Cochenour Arena, with the outcome not known as of press time.
Then they'll cap the week with back-to-back road games against the last-place Minnesota Iron Rangers (3-36-0-0) this Friday and Saturday down in Hoyt Lakes.
Strachan stressed the importance of his players working hard and taking care of business over the next week.
“Everything we do now has to prepare us for Game 1 of the playoffs, when it matters,” he remarked.
“It's gotta be hard work. We're going in Tuesday night to their [the Miners'] barn where it's not easy, they're a very good home team,” Strachan warned.
“They play a small-rink style of game and they try to go in [to games] with that style," he noted. ”We gotta go in there with the right frame of mind, play our game and chip away and capitalize on opportunities to have success.
“There's no doubt about it that throughout the week, we gotta work hard, prepare for the weekend, and we need two wins on the weekend,” Strachan reiterated.
“We can't afford not to go into Minnesota there twice and come out with nothing less than four points.”
As for the pair of weekend losses, the Miners' trio of Keegan Tiringer, Kyle Uzelman, and Venne posted three points apiece to help lead their squad to victory Saturday night.
After some good work in front of the net by Dane Bateman and Nick Hahkala, Reece Hopfner found the loose puck at the right side of the net and jammed it past Miners' goalie Zach Willms to open the scoring just 34 seconds into the game.
Venne drew the visitors even at 10:35 before Jackson Stephens tallied his first SIJHL goal when he buried a wrist shot from the left side past Lakers' goalie Matt Booth at 14:20.
Tiringer then netted the rebound of Uzelman's shot over Booth at 17:41 to stake the Miners to a two-goal cushion after 20 minutes.
The Miners went up 4-1 12:05 into the second when Uzelman cut towards the Lakers' net before snapping a low shot past Booth.
Stratton Pickett then showed off some deft touch by spinning around and firing his 23rd of the season to put the Miners up by four at 14:44.
The Lakers did get one back just over two minutes into the third when Nate Drobnick blasted a shot from the point over top of Willms on a man advantage but that's as close as they would get.
Willms made 33 saves to earn the win while Booth faced 39 shots in defeat.
“I thought we had a great start and score on the first shift, and kind of fed off it or built off it,” Strachan said afterwards.
“We had good energy and were in their face causing turnovers and had some very good chances to maybe go even further up,” he noted.
"And I guess throughout the [first] period, they [the Miners] started to scrum everything up, around the nets, anything at the benches, and it leads to them tying the game.
“I thought we quit doing what we were doing to have success, and we just didn't have that compete and battle in our game until the end of the second there,” he admitted.
On Friday night, Alec Daman's goal 2:07 into overtime was the difference as the third-place Norskies (23-14-3-1) rallied to nip the Lakers at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Thief River Falls started strong—skating out to a 2-0 lead in the first on goals by Alec Severson and Blake Nelson (power play).
Showing some resilience, the Lakers answered with two markers of their own later in the frame off the sticks of Jaedin Ness and Nick Lucas (power play) to knot it at 2-2 after 20 minutes.
Brett Hahkala then netted a pair of power-play goals within the first seven minutes of the second to put the Lakers up 4-2.
But the Norskies countered as Blake Nelson and Brett Piper answered for the hosts to knot it at 4-4 after 40 minutes.
After a scoreless third, Daman scored in the early stages of the extra frame to give the Norskies the victory.
Fletcher Bolda made 22 saves to earn the win while Jacob Gnidziejko made 30 stops to earn his side a point.
On the injury front, Ness suffered a shoulder injury during the third period of Friday night's loss to the Norskies.
Ness was trying to drive towards the net when he was cut off by a Norskies' player and fell awkwardly into the boards.
“He has a shoulder injury," Strachan noted. ”We're gonna get it re-evaluated on Monday just to see what it'll be on a more in-depth time frame.
“Obviously, we won't have him for [this] week and probably a few weeks just to let him recover so we have him through the long run here.”
As well, forward Noah Loveday has progressed while dealing with a hand injury and could slot back into the lineup as soon as this weekend in the games against the Iron Rangers.
“I think Noah is close [to returning]," Strachan said. ”We didn't wanna chance it throughout last week and re-injuring it [his hand].
“So we'll see where he's at, maybe have him at Monday's practice and see how it goes but I don't really foresee him for Tuesday night,” he added.
“Possibly for the weekend and that's probably the best-case scenario with him right now.”