Playing 180 minutes of hockey over three days proved too much of a challenge for the Fort Frances Lakers to overcome on the weekend.
The squad lost all three games played at the Ice For Kids Arena, which included a narrow 3-2 setback to the Thief River Falls Norskies on Friday before being blanked 2-0 by the red-hot Thunder Bay North Stars the following night.
The fifth-place Lakers (16-31-2-1) then had the weekend end on a very sour note with a 9-2 thrashing at the hands of the visiting Dryden GM Ice Dogs on Sunday afternoon.
“I thought we had a good start," head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan said afterwards. ”We were into it and [we] go up 1-0
"But then towards the latter part of the first, I think you could start to see that the fatigue started to set in.
“From that point on, it was tough for us," he remarked. ”It was too much [hockey] in three days and they [the Ice Dogs] had the fresher legs and took it to us.
“Maybe their second goal, you could feel the bench kind of drop a little bit when they scored it,” Strachan added.
“But you know, for the most part, I think we started to make some mental mistakes that we didn't have the previous two games, and we were just kind of sloppy and out of position,” he conceded.
“I think in the end, that's what hurt us, besides the guys being too tired to put the effort.”
Despite the lopsided result against Dryden, Strachan was pleased with his squad's compete level in the losses to the North Stars and Norskies.
He's hopeful his squad will be able to draw from the positives of being close in those two games and can build off it heading into this week.
The Lakers were scheduled to be on the road last night to face the second-place Red Lake Miners (33-15-2-0), with the outcome not known as of press time.
Fort Frances then will host the Norskies (29-18-4-1) this Friday at 7:30 p.m. before capping the week by welcoming the last-place Minnesota Iron Rangers (3-49-0-0) on Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
Both games will be played at the Ice For Kids Arena.
“The effort overall, especially in the first two games [against the Norskies and North Stars] and even into the start today, was definitely something we gotta draw off of,” Strachan said.
"The guys were focused, they were prepared, and, for the most part, we played our game plan, which helped our cause—I think.
“Our penalty kill was good, we gave up one goal [on it] throughout the three games,” he lauded.
“You know, we just have to look past today [Sunday] and forget about it and make sure we're positive heading up to Red Lake on Tuesday, and that we're prepared to put forth the effort that we need,” he stressed.
The Lakers did start off well against Dryden as Jaedin Ness opened the scoring nearly seven minutes into the first period when he was fed a stretch pass by Brett Hahkala and broke in all alone before firing a rocket past Ice Dogs' goalie Jordan Wilde.
But the fourth-place Ice Dogs (27-18-4-2) struck back with three tallies before the first frame was complete.
Eric Stout tallied back-to-back within five minutes before Kevin Parra-Vaughan unloaded a cannon of a shot from the point that beat Lakers' goalie Matt Booth to put the visitors up 3-1 after 20 minutes.
Dryden then tacked on three more in the second off the sticks of Cameron Coutre, Jacob Siebenga, and Rayman Bassi to make it 6-1.
Anthony Antonelli got one back for the Lakers during a man advantage later in the frame as his slapshot trimmed it to 6-2 after 40 minutes.
But the Ice Dogs sealed the win in the third as Malcolm Huemmert, Coutre, and Tyler Browning all bulged the twine to cap the scoring.
Dryden outshot Fort Frances 57-20.
On Saturday night, it was Lakers' goalie Jacob Gnidziejko who stole the show as he came up with a stellar 50-save performance in taking the loss.
Despite peppering Gnidziejko with 19 shots, the league-leading North Stars (44-3-1-1) couldn't solve him throughout the first 20 minutes.
Gnidziejko came up time and again with big saves, which included thwarting a difficult 2-on-1 chance for the North Stars.
But Thunder Bay finally connected late in the second frame as Jacob Brown scored on his club's 37 shot of the game when he pounced on a Lakers' miscue before sliding it through Gnidziejko's legs.
It stayed that way until the final moments of regulation time when Michael Stubbs fired an empty-netter with 10.9 seconds left to cap the scoring.
Dougie Newhouse handled all 24 shots he faced to record his fifth shutout of the season.
The victory also was the 12th in a row for Newhouse as he improved to 18-1-1 in his past 20 appearances for the North Stars.
“I think when you get a lot of shots, your mind is focused the whole time,” Gnidziejko said afterwards.
"You're not really getting distracted or anything like that.
“You're in net the whole 60 minutes so I don't mind getting a few extra pucks,” he smiled.
“They [the North Stars] have a lot of guys that can score and shoot the puck so you're not just watching one or two guys,” Gnidziejko added.
“They got a couple of good lines there so you really gotta be focused and keeping track of everyone out there.”
The Lakers had opened the weekend with a narrow setback to the third-place Norskies on Friday night.
After Boe Bjore skated into the Lakers' zone and had his initial shot stopped, Brett Piper opened the scoring when he buried the rebound past Gnidziejko 5:51 into the first period.
Ethan Knutsen then drew the Lakers even in the second when he grabbed the rebound of Dane Bateman's shot in the slot before firing it past Norskies' goalie Fletcher Bolda at 9:20.
But Piper came through with his second of the night just over three minutes later when he banged a loose puck past Gnidziejko.
Kirk Coppock evened things once again 13:57 into the third when he buried one into the open side after Isaac Baron sent him a cross-crease feed on a 2-on-1 chance.
But Blake Nelson put the Norskies ahead for good with 3:20 left as he fired a cross-ice pass from Jake Eischen past Gnidziejko.
The Lakers had a great chance with a man advantage late in the frame in which they pulled Gnidziejko to make it a 6-on-4 but couldn't notch the equalizer.
Bolda made 33 saves to earn the win while Gnidziejko turned aside 40 shots in taking the loss.
On the injury front, forward Nick Hahkala sat out Sunday's game against Dryden and will need some time to deal with a nagging hand injury.
As well, Coppock left after the first period Sunday with a nagging ailment of his own.
“Nick will probably be out all week to two weeks with a hand injury,” Strachan noted.
"It's been kind of nagging him for some time now and it's too overbearing for him to play right now.
“Kirk started the game [Sunday] but left it after the first period," he added. ”Just, I guess, a nagging injury that he has right now, as well.
“He just felt that he couldn't go for the rest of the game and give the effort that he needed to.”
Lakers' captain Nick Lucas (lower body), defencemen Presten Bobyk (upper body) and Keon Fox (ankle), and forward Reece Hopfner (lower body) also all still remain out with their injuries.