Thursday, December 18, 2014

Lakers sizzling entering playoffs

If the “second season” plays out the same as the first, the Fort Frances Lakers will be checking out hotel prices in Wellington.
That’s the site of this year’s Dudley-Hewitt Cup, which has one of four berths reserved for the SIJHL champs.

Fort Frances has the inside track on that spot after concluding its regular-season championship campaign with a 6-2 win over the Wisconsin Wilderness here Saturday night.
The Lakers (46-6-2-2) head into their two-game, total-goals series against the second-place Thunder Bay North Stars (40-11-1-4) on a nine-game winning streak and victories in 13 of their last 14 games.
Game 1 is set for this Saturday in Thunder Bay, with Game 2 going next Friday (March 21) at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena here.
“I believe going into the playoffs on a positive note is a good thing for any team,” said Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan.
“It gives you confidence in your game and the belief that good things can happen.
“We wanted to end the season strong and continue working to improve our game,” he added.
“I believe we are focused and ready to put in a solid playoff run.”
But Strachan stressed these next two games won’t be easy.
“[They’re] a good test for our composure, emotions, and for some of our young guys to get their feet wet in a playoff atmosphere,” he reasoned.
Riley Daly tallied the lone goal of the first period for his fourth of the season.
Lyndon Lipinski then picked up his 39th of the campaign about midway through the second, with Lucas DeBenedet aiding his partner on the “DLM Line” with his second assist of the night.
Donovan Cousineau, who finished an injury-plagued
season with 23 points in 26 games, notched his sixth of the season at 15:05 to put the Wilderness (5-51) in an even deeper hole.
Wisconsin found a spark in the third, with Alex Rezansoff lighting the lamp to cut the lead to 3-1.
But Cam Gobeil countered with his fourth before DeBenedet tacked on his league-best 48th goal less than two minutes later for a 5-1 advantage.
Shane Billings pulled the Wilderness closer at 17:24, but Kyle Lipinski rounded out the scoring shortly after that with his sixth of the season.
Ryan Ferguson, who hadn’t played since Dec. 10 after being relegated to third-string status by Devin Tappenden and Jordan Cartney, was given the start against Wisconsin and rewarded Strachan with a 33-save performance.
“Ryan is a prototypical teammate,” Strachan said about the former Muskie, who crafted a terrific 10-1-1 record with a 3.13 GAA and .888 save percentage.
“He doesn’t complain, he comes and works hard, and is upbeat and there for his fellow teammates day in and day out,” Strachan lauded.
“You can’t find a nicer kid, and he has stuck by his team and worked hard to earn this start.
“Some players had asked during the week if he was starting and the coaching staff had discussed it for a while,” noted Strachan.
“He earned it, and in the game he made saves we needed him to.
“Their first goal was a tip and [on] the second, our player lost his man,” Strachan recounted. “It could have very easily been a shutout performance.
“It’s good to see for Ryan and I believe his teammates wanted to help him earn that 10th win.”
Griffin Strain made 24 saves for the Wilderness, who are at the other end of the success spectrum right now, having lost 10-straight in advance of their best-of-seven quarter-final match-up against the third-place Minnesota Iron Rangers.
The other quarter-final will pit the fourth-place English River Miners (21-29-5) against the fifth-place Dryden Ice Dogs (21-30-5).
The winner of the Lakers-North Stars showdown will get to choose its opponent in the semi-finals.
Strachan said there are many things against Thunder Bay that need an increased focus from the Lakers, who won the season series 6-3-0-1, including the last three in a row.
“Matching their intensity, continuing to play our game, and stick to the game plan,” he stressed.
“A defence-first mentality and shutting their high-scoring line of [Daniel] Del Paggio, [Zach] Grzelewski, and [Matthias] Gardiman down.
“Keeping our emotions in check and not getting too high or low in the two games, strong special teams against a good hockey team, and, lastly, solid goaltending,” he added.
That final element shouldn’t be an issue with the presence of Tappenden, who was named the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s second star of the month after going 8-0 with a 1.88 GAA and .927 save percentage in February.
Throw in the fact the Lakers scored the most goals (295) and gave up the least (150), and had the league’s best power-play unit (26.8 percent), coupled with a penalty-killing unit that hasn’t allowed a goal in the past 10 games, and one has to like the Lakers’ chances of beating the North Stars—or anybody else who gets in their way.
“I believe our team matured a lot throughout the year on and off the ice,” said Strachan.
“I think what we have accomplished in the months of February and March so far has proven our team has grown and made our game better throughout the year,” he remarked.
“You always have ups and downs through the year,” Strachan conceded. “But we tightened up some areas of our discipline off the ice and became more of a team together and, on the ice, shored up areas of our game we needed to improve on.
“As coach and staff, we are proud of all that this group of young men have accomplished, all the firsts for the franchise,” Strachan continued.
“I am very pleased with our progress and although our season has been successful until this point, we need to remember that all this doesn’t matter now,” he stressed.
“We can be proud but it’s clutch time now and the games get more intense, harder, and the team that will prevail will ultimately be the one that is most consistent and keeps their emotions in check.”
The Lakers will be somewhat short-staffed entering the post-season because of injuries—some more serious than others.
Strachan confirmed forward Colton Spicer, who had 15 points in 12 games in his return to Fort Frances, will be out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury.
Captain Patrick Sofer (shoulder) may be back against Thunder Bay while defenceman Aaron Wesley-Chisel (undisclosed) likely will miss at least Game 1 of the series.
Defenceman John Dora returned against Wisconsin on Saturday night after being out five weeks with a head injury.
Forward Hunter Leishman also was back in the lineup after having to leave the Lakers’ previous game with an undisclosed injury.

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