It wasn't exactly a picturesque ending to the regular season for the Fort Frances Lakers.
A pair of weekend home losses, starting with 4-3 shootout defeat to the Dryden GM Ice Dogs on Friday night and then a 2-1 overtime setback the following night against the Thief River Falls Norskies, left the Lakers mired in a seven-game skid.
But head coach and general Wayne Strachan was optimistic about the way his team played down the stretch.
“Definitely not how we wanted to end the [regular] season," he conceded. ”However, a lot of good has happened lately.
“We have defended better as a team, our compete level has jumped up, [and] we have had our chances to have success,” Strachan noted.
“We have gotten good goaltending, and our focus and attitudes have remained positive.”
Muskie boys' forward Kendyn Faragher was pencilled into the Lakers' lineup for both games on the weekend, and Strachan felt he made a smooth transition.
“Kendyn adjusted well, we believe,” he remarked.
"He got his feet wet earlier in the season, as well, so it was good to see.
“He plays a simple game," Strachan added. "[He] understands our systems and brings a physical presence.”
Fellow Muskies Eric Pitkanen and Cole Allan both were in the Lakers' lineup down the stretch, as well.
Strachan believes the trio can be key pieces for the fifth-place Lakers (15-32-3-6) during their best-of-five quarter-final series against the fourth-place English River Miners (28-23-1-4), which opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Cochenour Arena.
“The one thing I like about these guys is they know what it takes to win a championship, having participated in the Muskie program,” Strachan lauded.
“They have changed the make-up of our team and have given us some depth to work with,” he noted.
“When they joined the team for the first practice, you could see the intensity of our guys rise," Strachan added. ”The attitude was more positive and we felt more like a team.
“They will be a big part of this series," he stressed. ”We will need honest minutes from them and a high compete level.
“The one thing they bring is that they finish checks and keep things safe, which helps immensely, and they have blended in well with their lines and the team, in general,” Strachan noted.
Game 2 goes there tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
Game 3 is set for Saturday, March 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena, with Game 4 (if necessary) here on Monday, March 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Should the series end up going the distance, Game 5 is slated for Wednesday, March 28 at 7:30 p.m. back at the Cochenour Arena.
The Miners and Lakers squared off 10 times during the regular season, with English River taking the season set 7-3.
The two teams last met in post-season play during the 2016 campaign, with the Lakers sweeping the Miners in four-straight games en route to their third-consecutive SIJHL title.
They also squared off in the 2014 playoffs, where Fort Frances again won in four games in semi-final action.
What will be some of the biggest challenges in facing the Miners this time around?
“To me, the biggest challenge will be to match their intensity," Strachan said. ”They play from buzzer-to-buzzer and never quit.
“They are a team that believes in one another and seem to rise up to big challenges, and everyone contributes for them,” he added.
"We will have to shut down their big guns offensively.
“Keys to winning will be our emotions and how we deal with their physical game," Strachan noted. ”And if things are tough for us, we will have to keep those emotions on an even-keel and stay disciplined.
“We need to win battles, play strong team defence, take advantage on their breakdowns, and our special teams will have to be at its best to have success,” he stressed.
Strachan also said his roster is mostly healthy but noted they are awaiting the status of defenceman MacKenzie Flett, who was to be re-evaluated Monday while dealing with a lower-body injury.
As for the two losses to close out the Lakers' regular-season play, it was the Ice Dogs (40-8-6-2) who set the tone here Friday night by battling back from a trio of one-goal deficits before eventually skating away with the shootout victory here.
With the win, coupled with Thief River Falls' loss in Thunder Bay, Dryden secured first place overall in the standings and is the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
Lakers' forward Jack Bernie was impressive in scoring all three of his team's goals en route to his first SIJHL hat trick, with Adam Withers assisting on all three.
Fort Frances took a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes on Bernie's first of the night before Eric Stout tied it on a power play 3:43 into the second.
After Bernie put the Lakers back on top, Jacen Bracko netted his league-leading 48th goal of the season during a man advantage to knot the score at 2-2.
Bernie then completed his hat trick to give the Lakers the lead for a third time—only to see Malcolm Huemmert force overtime with 9:24 to go.
After the extra frame solved nothing, Stout snapped a low shot through the legs of Lakers' goalie Ismael Ralsten in the shootout.
Landon Pavlisin picked up the win by making 23 saves while Ralsten turned aside 44 shots in taking the loss.
The Lakers were close again Saturday night but once again fell short to the second-place Norskies (41-11-2-2).
Alec Daman scored 1:19 into overtime to give Thief River Falls the win in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Tate Steffan opened the scoring for the visitors midway through the first period when he coasted up the right wing and snapped a shot past Ralsten.
Nick Lucas evened it when he fired a shot top-shelf past Jackson Nelson on a power play at 5:42 of the third.
There was nearly a half-hour delay midway through the frame to replace a broken pane of glass.
Once action resumed, the game remained level through the rest of regulation time.
Daman then sent the visitors to victory early into the extra frame as he skated in on a partial breakaway and slid the winner between the legs of Ralsten.
Nelson made 34 saves to earn the win while Ralsten finished with 35 stops in suffering the loss.