The Fort Frances Lakers might be off to an 0-2 start to the SIJHL pre-season but head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan is pleased with the effort he has seen so far from his players.
The Dryden GM Ice Dogs beat the Lakers by scores of 6-3 and 3-0 to sweep the weekend home-and-home series but Strachan likes the direction his squad is heading after a vastly improved defensive effort on Saturday night.
“I thought we made vast improvements from Friday in our defensive game, managing the puck and playing a harder game,” he noted of Saturday night's loss in Dryden.
“I felt we played a pretty good game, kept it simple and—in the end—one of the main things that plagued us was not finding the back of the net.”
A stingy Ice Dogs's defence shut out the Lakers to wrap up the home-and-home series in Dryden on Saturday night.
After a scoreless first period, Dryden opened the scoring midway through the second frame (goal scorer wasn't provided).
The Ice Dogs added some insurance midway through the third period as Dylan Winsor scored shorthanded.
Jaxon Krupa then rounded out the scoring with a late tally with help from Parker James and Gavyn Galloway.
Jacob Anthony handled all 34 shots he faced to nab the shutout while Lakers' goalie Alex Bugeja faced 39 attempts in taking the loss.
“We have good speed, our vets for the most part are playing well and working hard,” lauded Strachan.
“Attitude-wise, we are far a head of last year's team. We have guys buying in early and that's what we need, I like our work ethic.”
On Friday night, six different skaters scored for the Ice Dogs to help them double the Lakers 6-3 in the pre-season opener for both teams at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Each side scored once in the first period, with former Sioux Lookout Warriors' sniper Cortez Favot connecting for Dryden while Nick Hahkala countered for the hosts with a nifty short-handed effort.
Busting into the Ice Dogs' zone, Hahkala stripped a defender of the puck behind the net before skating out front and fooling Dryden starter Dawson Rattai with a low shot to knot it at 1-1.
Despite getting a five-minute man advantage after a Dryden player was tossed for a hit to the head, the Lakers couldn't capitalize any further.
The Ice Dogs then broke it open in the middle frame by notching a trio of tallies to go up 4-1 after 40 minutes.
Picking up the markers for Dryden were Brady Lacharity, Galloway, and Cameron Murray.
After Justin Pitari's tally made it 5-1 just 55 seconds into the third, the Lakers got goals from MacKenzie Flett and Michael Chapman to close the gap.
Skating into the Dryden zone, Flett craftily weaved his way through the Ice Dogs' defence before curl-and-dragging the puck and snapping a shot past Rattai.
Chapman had a bit of luck on his side with his marker, however, as he fired a shot from along the sideboards near the blueline that bounced off an Ice Dogs' defender and in to trim it to 5-3.
But the Ice Dogs iced the victory with a late empty-netter from Luke Golka to cap the scoring with 1:44 to go.
Shots on goal favoured the Ice Dogs by a 39-33 margin, with Rattai picking up the win and Jared Cable suffering the loss.
“After the second [period] we talked about, I guess, the situation we were in and maybe the difference in the hockey game,” Strachan said after the game.
“We wanted to be resilient in the third and give ourselves a chance to battle back. You know, I thought we did a good job and we didn't get all the way back and maybe it was a little misread on my part to pull the goalie when I did,” he admitted.
“But I liked our battle a little more in the third. We were a little smarter defensively but all in all, at the end of the day, they [the Ice Dogs] capitalized and we didn't.”
The Lakers will conclude the pre-season with another home-and-home series against the Red Lake Miners, which starts tonight at 7 p.m. at the Cochenour Arena.
Fort Frances then will host the finale on Friday night at 7 p.m. to conclude the exhibition schedule.
Strachan noted that the Lakers came right out of camp into the two games against the Ice Dogs, so system-wise they were a week behind their opponents.
From that assessment, he stressed that his squad needs to defend better in this week's games against the Miners.
“We need to keep pucks safe, break bad habits, add depth to our defence core, be more patient with the puck offensively, and get more hunger in our pressure on the opponents' net,” Strachan remarked.
“We need to keep improving every day and now that we are practising systems, work on them to help our game.”
The Lakers will kick-off the SIJHL's 19th regular season at home when they host the Thief River Falls Norskies on Friday, Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.