The Fort Frances Lakers were able to salvage a win in the pre-season finale and will be looking to keep that momentum rolling as they get set to open the SIJHL regular season this week.
Stone Stelzl scored with just 1:31 left in regulation time to lift the Lakers to an exciting 2-1 win over the Red Lake Miners in the pre-season finale for both teams Sunday afternoon at the Ice For Kids Arena to split the home-and-home series.
The victory helped the Lakers finish the exhibition schedule with a 1-3 record and head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan is hopeful his squad will ride that winning feeling into their home-opener on Friday, when they welcome the Thief River Falls Norskies to town for a 7:30 p.m. showdown.
“It was definitely a goal we wanted to achieve today was getting the win and feeling good about ourselves going into this week and into the regular season,” he said after Sunday's win on home ice.
The Miners, who claimed the opener of the home-and-home set by a slim 7-6 margin in a high-scoring affair last Wednesday night in Red Lake, opened the scoring early in the first period of Sunday's game as Ryan Howe finished off a Ryan Patterson feed at the 1:23 mark.
Shortly after the Lakers had killed off a 5-on-3 Miners' power play in the second frame, they got a man advantage of their own and wasted little time in capitalizing.
Taking a feed through the middle of the ice, Jake Barker snapped a quick shot that eluded Kolter Pawlick in the Miners' net to knot it at 1-1 at 15:23.
Then with overtime looming late in the third, Stelzl—who the Lakers acquired back on Sept. 1 from the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (NOJHL) for a player development fee—barged his way to the front of the net before tucking the puck home to send the home fans into a frenzy.
The Lakers outshot the Miners 33-26, with Alex Bujega picking up the win and Pawlick suffering the narrow defeat for Red Lake.
“I think we did a good job in our zone in keeping the puck safe and getting it out and then Stone comes across and supports Flynn [Perry] and they create the 2-on-1 and get the opportunity to the net and Stone does a good job of not just skating behind the net or staying in the corner,” Strachan said of the sequence leading up to the winning goal.
"He comes to the net to find the loose puck and then gets the opportunity to score, so you know it was a heads-up offensive play and it was a smart play, I guess, in our zone to lead to that.
“It's kind of what we've been talking about in keeping things simple and it was good to see it come through for us at the end there,” he enthused.
Strachan believes Stelzl has fit in well with the Lakers so far and is hopeful for a big season for the 19-year-old.
“I think he's come in well, he knew [Tyler] Malpass from playing with him growing up and whatnot, so it's always easier I think to come into a place knowing somebody and being familiar,” he remarked.
“Both of them are pretty easygoing guys and really the team as a whole has gelled together nicely and you know, Stone is fitting in well. He has good offensive upside for us and hopefully he keeps working hard and doing what he can.”
Sunday's game was originally slated to take place Friday evening at the Ice For Kids Arena, but was rescheduled due to a breakdown of the Miners' team bus that prevented Red Lake from travelling to Fort Frances in time for the contest.
In order to still have an event, the Lakers and Muskie boys' hockey team combined their rosters to make two teams and played an exhibition game against each other.
The “Lakers" went on to defeat the "Muskies” by a 6-1 margin.
“Our players worked hard and obviously they were preparing to play Friday night and [we had] a little bit of a letdown with the game being postponed, but I just thought if we could play a game-like scrimmage and include the Muskies to have more bodies and obviously it only helps those younger guys with the increased speed and intensity,” Strachan said of the reasons for setting the game up on Friday.
“Obviously there was no [body] contact and the game was a little on the lighter side but I just felt our guys worked hard, you know, for two weeks and it's been a grind, so I thought maybe just to have something on the lighter side rather than put them through an intense practice before today,” he added.
“It would be better just to lighten the mood and let them have a little bit of fun together and they had yesterday off and came to play a pretty good 40 minutes today.”
After Friday's home-opener, the Lakers will head to Thief River Falls the following night to complete the home-and-home series at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Strachan is hopeful that his squad will quickly learn the team's systems and will steadily improve in the early stages of the regular season.
“We'll continue hammering our game plan into them and what we want to do system-wise,” he noted.
“We've got a fair amount of new guys that came in over the weekend, so we have a lot of fresh faces that haven't really been able to see what we like to do or want to do and so we'll just continue to do that. Tomorrow [Monday] will kind of be a skill and defensive day and then we'll just keep repeating our systems leading up until Thursday, then it'll be special teams and then Friday, obviously, it will be our first game.”
On the injury front, Strachan noted that the Lakers should have local forward Nick Hahkala (upper body) back in the lineup on Friday night.
Malpass (lower body) remains out, with Strachan saying that the coaching staff will know more on the forward's status this week but that he could still be out for another two-four weeks.