It's been a gruelling season and things aren't going to get any easier for the Fort Frances Lakers as they conclude the SIJHL's regular season this week.
The squad managed to split its weekends games at the Ice For Kids Arena, which included a 7-3 romp over the Minnesota Iron Rangers on Sunday afternoon following a 5-1 loss to the Thief River Falls Norskies on Friday night.
The fifth-place Lakers (17-33-2-1) resumed action last night on the road against the league-leading Thunder Bay North Stars (46-4-1-1), with the outcome not known as of press time.
Then they'll host the fourth-place Dryden GM Ice Dogs (29-20-4-2) on Friday before wrapping up the regular season against the second-place Red Lake Miners (36-15-3-0) the following night.
Both those games go at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.
“It's all about preparation right now for Game 1 [of the playoffs],” Lakers' head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan said after Sunday's win against the Iron Rangers.
“We're going to see three tough opponents, and Friday night potentially our first-round opponent, so throughout last week, [we] kind of went through some walk-throughs on some stuff and you can kind of see it paying off a little bit,” he noted.
"We've adjusted some areas of our game, which I thought when we did it Friday night, we kind of bottled the Norskies up, which was good to see, as well.
“Guys are catching on to different changes in the system so [this week], it'll just be about preparation and hopefully adding some more bodies and getting our intensity for 60 minutes heading into the playoffs,” he added.
Chase Robideau scored three times for his first SIJHL hat trick and added an assist, while teammate Jaedin Ness tallied twice, as the Lakers snapped an eight-game losing streak Sunday afternoon by beating the last-place Iron Rangers (3-50-0-0).
Ness opened the scoring with the lone marker of the first period, which came just past the six-minute mark.
After some good work down low by Brett Hahkala, he worked the puck to the front of the Iron Rangers' net, where Ness was right there to jam it past Synjen Amende.
Minnesota drew even 6:32 into the second on Matt Turnbull's seventh as he tapped a pass from Elliott VanOrsdell past Lakers' goalie Matt Booth.
But Fort Frances struck three times in rapid succession to go up 4-1 thanks to Ness, Nick Hahkala, and Robideau.
The Iron Rangers got one back late in the second off the stick of Garrett Wojcicki as he fired a rebound over Booth to trim it to 4-2 after 40 minutes.
Ethan Knutsen finished off a pretty tic-tac-toe play from Isaac Baron and Kirk Coppock to put the hosts back up by three 11:50 into the third.
Cam Birkeland got one back during a two-man advantage at 16:06 to trim it to 5-3 but Robideau then connected twice in the final minute, including an empty-netter, to round out the scoring.
Jakob Ruck chipped in with two assists for Lakers (17-33-2-1).
Booth made 25 stops to earn the win while Amende saw 56 shots fired his way in taking the loss.
“The score was only 1-0 after the first period but we carried the play,” Strachan said.
"We definitely out-chanced them and I thought we needed to put more bodies to the net, which we did throughout the last 40 minutes.
“But the good start led to, I guess, getting us into it and paving the way to come out successful today,” he added.
It was a different story Friday night as the Lakers fell 5-1 to the third-place Norskies (30-20-4-1).
Boe Bjorge tallied twice to pace the visitors, who outshot the Lakers 40-28.
The Norskies jumped out to a 2-0 lead after one period of play on goals by Bjorge and Connor Bowey.
Bjorge opened the scoring 4:19 into the first when he fired a shot high on Lakers' goalie Jacob Gnidziejko.
Bowey then doubled the lead at 16:28 when he fired a pass from Mason McIntosh at the side of the net past Gnidziejko.
It was more Thief River Falls in the second as they tacked on two more to extend the cushion as Bjorge notched his second of the game before Jacob Schuldt added his fourth of the campaign.
Alec Severson made it 5-0 for the Norskies just past the 10-minute mark of the third as he slid in his ninth.
The Lakers eventually spoiled Bailey Schmitz's shutout bid at 17:09 of the final frame when Baron broke down the left wing before getting around a Norskies' defender and snapping one five-hole to round out the scoring.
“Friday night, we just didn't have it,” Strachan admitted.
“I had a feeling throughout the day that something was not right and it proved to be right and in the end,” he noted.
“We just weren't mentally there and it hurt us.”
Muskie boys' forward Jake Barker has joined the team as an affiliate player and suited up in all three of the Lakers' games last week.
Strachan was pleased with how he has adjusted to junior 'A' hockey so far.
“He's done a good job," Strachan said of the 17-year-old. ”He's kept things simple and he's created opportunities because of it.
“It's good for him to have the opportunity and the experience, and I think he's grasping it full force and taking advantage of it,” he lauded.
“He's working hard, he's getting involved with the guys, and the guys have accepted him and that's good to see.”
On the injury front, forwards Nick Hahkala (hand) and Coppock, along with defenceman Keon Fox (ankle), were back in the lineup for Sunday's game against the Iron Rangers.
Lakers' captain Nick Lucas (lower body), defencemen Presten Bobyk (upper body), and forward Reece Hopfner (lower body) still remain out with their injuries.