A challenging season ended on a sour note for the Fort Frances Lakers as they were swept by the Dryden GM Ice Dogs in their best-of-five quarter-final playoff series last week.
Evan Pakkala scored three times, including the game-winner in the second period, as the fourth-place Ice Dogs rolled to a 6-2 win over the fifth-place Lakers in Game 3 on Friday night at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Dryden now advances to the best-of-seven semi-finals this week against the top-ranked Thunder Bay North Stars.
The second-place Red Lake Miners, meanwhile, will battle the third-place Thief River Falls Norskies in the other semi-final series after the Norskies swept the last-place Minnesota Iron Rangers in that quarter-final over the weekend.
“Definitely a lot of tears in the [dressing] room right now because there's seven guys whose junior careers have come to an end,” Lakers' head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan said after Friday's loss.
"It's pretty emotional.
“But despite the score, I thought we played our best game of the series," he added. ”We definitely were in it, had our opportunities, and maybe didn't take advantage of them when we had our good scoring chances.
“But I'm proud of the guys," Strachan stressed. "We went down fighting and didn't give up easy against a good hockey team.”
Assessing the season as a whole, Strachan didn't want to get into specific details quite yet but did offer some insight.
“The year was very up and down," he conceded. ”As a team, when things were going good, I don't think we took advantage of it enough or seized the opportunity.
“Even if we weren't winning hockey games, but we were playing well and working hard and things were coming together, I think we kept pushing forward," he remarked. ”But when things were down, it really got to us.
“It was heavy on our shoulders and we didn't maybe respond as quick as we needed to and we let things get to us too easily,” Strachan admitted.
Through the second half, when he thought the team really was coming around, Strachan said injuries definitely took their toll.
“You don't look for excuses or don't wanna blame anything but if we could have had a healthy 20 guys for the latter part of the second half, the last month especially, I think we're a different team,” he reasoned.
“I think we're in a better place heading into the playoffs and it just didn't come together for us in that manner.”
Friday's game here saw the Ice Dogs open the scoring just over three minutes into the first period when Eric Stout finished off a short-handed chance with Trey Palermo.
The Lakers came back to tie it a couple shifts later when Nick Hahkala was set up in the slot, where he wired the equalizer past Ice Dogs' goalie Jacob Anthony for his first SIJHL playoff goal.
Pakkala then notched his first of the night late in the period when he knocked one in from close range to make it 2-1 for the visitors.
He then added the eventual winner with the lone goal of the middle frame as he neatly re-directed a feed in front that eluded Lakers' goalie Jacob Gnidziejko at 6:46.
Braden Shea banged in the rebound of a Ryan Brandt point shot at 6:14 of the third before Noah Loveday got that back for the home squad a minute-and-a-half later to trim it to 4-2.
But Cameron Coutre added some insurance for Dryden later in the frame before Pakkala finished off his hat trick—and the series—with a late empty-netter to round out the scoring.
Tyler Browning and Malcolm Huemmert had two assists apiece to aid the Ice Dogs' offence, who will continue on to what they hope will be their third-straight Bill Salonen Cup title.
Anthony made 25 saves to record the win.
Gnidziejko, meanwhile, was solid once again in the season-ending defeat for the Lakers as he wrapped up his season with a .922 playoff save percentage after finishing with 47 stops.
Fort Frances opened the series with a 4-2 loss in Dryden last Tuesday night.
The Ice Dogs exploded for three second-period goals to help them start off the series on the right foot.
The Lakers actually opened the scoring five-and-a-half minutes into the game when Chase Robideau went high from the right side on Anthony.
But the Ice Dogs countered with the equalizer at 12:56 when Curtis Magas fired a shot from the point that found its way past Gnidziejko.
Dryden then took the lead early in the second when Browning deflected home a Trey Palermo attempt while parked in front of the visitors' net.
Going to the power play later in the frame, Browning added another as his shot from the left point found its way through a screen at the top of the crease to make it 3-1 at 12:24.
The Ice Dogs weren't done there as on the tail end of being down two men, Huemmert came out of the penalty box and was sent in alone on a short-handed breakaway, where he made a couple of quick dekes before slipping the puck into the open side past a sprawled Gnidziejko three minutes later.
Fort Frances cut into the deficit 4:12 into the third after breaking out of their own zone that eventually led to Robideau darting into Dryden territory and firing a shot that clipped the glove of Anthony on the way by.
The Lakers then pulled Gnidziejko late for an extra attacker in an attempt to force overtime but the Ice Dogs held firm to secure the win.
Coutre had two assists for the hosts.
Anthony made 26 saves to earn the win while Gnidziejko stopped 30 shots in taking the loss.
Then in Game 2 the following night, also in Dryden, Anthony made 25 saves—and had a little luck on his side in the late going to help him post a shutout—as the Ice Dogs blanked the Lakers 2-0.
Dryden netted the eventual game-winner just over midway through the first period when Stout knocked in the rebound of Browning's point shot.
The Ice Dogs pressed the pace to try and extend their cushion but had a tough time beating Gnidziejko again as the score stayed 1-0 after 40 minutes despite the Ice Dogs holding a 35-13 edge in shots.
Dryden finally added some insurance in the third when Brandt pinched in and took a Huemmert feed from behind the Lakers' net and snapped his first SIJHL playoff marker past Gnidziejko at 6:42.
The Lakers pulled Gnidziejko with a minute-and-a-half to go for an extra attacker and their best chance to get on the board came on a dump-in that bounced off a stanchion and caught Anthony going out of the crease to play it.
But the puck came across, hit the post, and stayed out.
The Ice Dogs held firm from there to hold on for the win and take a stranglehold on the series.
Gnidziejko was solid for the Lakers in finishing with 53 stops in the setback.
“I think the biggest [challenge] was their intensity,” Strachan said of the Ice Dogs.
“They worked hard through all three games and any opportunity we got, or any chance that we had or momentum, we had to earn it and work for it,” he stressed.
“You know, they were relentless," he added. ”They just kept coming, they didn't stop or give us a break, and in the end, we get some guys back from injury but we lose some key guys throughout the series to injury.
“If you walked in our room right now, we're like the walking wounded,” Strachan chuckled.
“It's something that plagued us through the last month-and-a-half here and we just didn't score enough goals to, obviously, give ourselves a chance to win the series,” he conceded.
Looking ahead to next season, Strachan said an area he would like the to improve the team in is on the defensive side of the puck.
“I'm not gonna get into a lot of what I think," he remarked. ”We'll have to analyze the guys who are returning and we definitely need to improve as a team defensively.
“We gave up too many goals," he noted. ”We gave up too many shots, especially through these three games [against the Ice Dogs] and even through the latter part of the year.
“Defensively, we need to get improved and obviously on the back end, we need to get bigger and stronger and guys that are going to battle hard,” Strachan said.
"Especially in front of our net.
“Not that I didn't like our defensive core," he stressed. ”I just thought that we were too similar in how we played and needed more of guys that play different styles on our back end defensively.
“And we need forwards that are going to come in with good character and buy into a defensive system that helps us have more success throughout the year.”