It was a tough season for the Fort Frances Lakers—and made even harder with a tough series loss to the Dryden GM Ice Dogs in the SIJHL semi-finals.
The Lakers finished in fifth place during the regular season with a 15-32-3-6 record but put in a solid effort by taking down the fourth-place English River Miners 3-1 in the best-of-five quarter-finals.
But it was a much stiffer challenge against the top-ranked Ice Dogs, who put on a clinic throughout most of the semi-finals, ultimately taking it 4-1 to advance to defend their title from a season ago.
Malcolm Huemmert and Jacen Bracko each netted a pair of goals to pace the Ice Dogs to a 10-2 onslaught of the visiting Lakers in Game 5 on Sunday afternoon that ended a disappointing campaign for Fort Frances.
“I am not going to sugarcoat our season—we did not do well,” Lakers' head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan remarked.
“Our win total was the second-lowest in franchise history," he noted. ”We battled selfishness, bad attitudes, problems off the ice, and it all affected what we were on the ice.
“You get what you put into it, and we had a lot of players come and go that just wanted to have fun, in my opinion,” he added.
Strachan felt as though some of his players didn't put the work in that is necessary to succeed at the Junior 'A' level.
“It's unfortunate as it played its toll on the guys who did care, who did come to work every day, and who took care of themselves off the ice and they suffered because of these other factors I mentioned,” he said.
"We were a young team that did grow, and once we got rid of some attitudes and guys who brought others down, we started to play some good hockey for one another.
“As a coaching staff, you always want to see growth as players and people, development on the ice, and coming together as a family to try and achieve greatness,” Strachan added.
“I remember the day the Muskie affiliates walked into our [dressing] room for practice towards the end of the season,” he said, referring to Cole Allan, Eric Pitkanen, and Kendyn Faragher.
"It lifted spirits, attitudes, and we had maybe our best practice of the season.
“At that time, we were playing some pretty good hockey," Strachan noted. "But it brought a fresh look, a fresh attitude, and a sense that we had more bodies and, at this point, some guys were tired.”
Heading into the first round of the playoffs, Strachan said he could sense the team believed they could win the series and move on, which they set out to do.
“We played our best hockey of the year in that round and battled for one another, and we were a team,” he remarked.
“Heading into the round with Dryden, I am not sure we believed we could accomplish an upset,” he conceded.
“And we didn't battle consistently or play the same game we did versus the Miners.”
Looking ahead to next season, Strachan knows exactly what he'll have to do to get the Lakers' franchise back to respectability.
“Number one, I/we have to do a better job recruiting and finding some character guys who want to be here for the right reasons, who want to better themselves, and become a part of our community,” he stressed.
“As far as on the ice, we have to see who wants to return and evaluate where we sit on who we want to return,” he added.
"Areas that come to mind where we can improve are we need more size, we need to improve our defensive game, we need more character, and we need more scoring.
“With players that can potentially return, we have several guys to build around in all areas of the game,” Strachan noted.
“We have a busy summer ahead of us to return to the top of the SIJHL.”
As for the series against Dryden, it took little effort for the Ice Dogs to advance to the final.
Following a touching pre-game ceremony honouring all those affected by the horrific bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos on Friday, Dryden set the tone early by grabbing a 3-0 lead before the game was five-and-a-half minutes old on tallies by Dakotah Woods, Bracko, and Cory Dennis.
Ian Tookenay got one back for the Lakers at 7:27—only to see the Ice Dogs counter just 16 seconds later by Huemmert.
The goals kept coming from there, with Bracko adding his second of the frame just moments after that before Tookenay helped set up Jaedin Ness at 9:21 to cut it to 5-2 through 20 minutes.
Dryden extend its lead with a couple of second-period markers off the sticks of Huemmert and Eric Stout to make it 7-2.
The home side then put the finishing touches on the series as Tristan Simm, Evan Walls, and Conner Mowatt rounded out the scoring in the third.
Walls also had three assists for a four-point effort—one of eight Ice Dogs' skaters with multi-point games.
Landon Pavlisin made 24 saves to earn the win while affiliate goalie Matthew Booth turned aside 42 shots in taking the loss.
“They are a big team that can be intimidating at times,” Strachan said of the Ice Dogs.
"Add in their speed and skill, and they are dangerous to contend.
“They have some guys that can control games and their big players rose up when they needed them,” he noted.
The Lakers had come into the game after doubling the Ice Dogs 6-3 in a must-win Game 4 on Thursday night at the Ice For Kids Arena here.
With their season on the line, impressive performances by Adam Withers and Nick Lucas, along with emergency replacement goalie Brendan Mallon, helped the Lakers extend the series.
Withers scored a pair of markers and added three assists, Lucas had four helpers, while Mallon turned in a stellar effort in making 43 saves.
The Lakers' power play also was clicking in that game as they struck four times with the man advantage.
Withers opened the scoring on the first of eight Laker power plays 6:09 into the first period.
Ice Dogs' captain Trevor Kavanaugh knotted it at 1-1 with a power-play goal of his own with just 1.5 seconds left before intermission.
Dryden then took the lead early in the second—only to see the Lakers strike three times with the extra man as Withers and Jack Dunnell tallied before affiliate player Eric Pitkanen notched his first career playoff marker.
“I thought Eric played well throughout both series, played physical, created some nice scoring chances, and was reliable in our end in getting pucks out, for the most part,” lauded Strachan.
That goal spelled the end of the night for Dryden starter Jacob Gnidziejko, who was replaced by Pavlisin.
Pavlisin promptly was greeted by tallies from Ian Jarvis and Ness that put the Lakers up 6-2 before the third period was two-and-a-half minutes old.
Evan Walls got one back on a short-handed 2-on-1 for Dryden but that's as close as the visitors would get.
Mallon earned the win while Gnidziejko suffered the loss in allowing four goals on 17 shots.
Pavlisin finished with 10 saves in relief.