It's probably starting to feel a little like déjà vu for the Fort Frances Lakers when it comes to the SIJHL playoffs.
Each year, the squad's road seemingly leads them to the Dryden GM Ice Dogs—and that's the case once again as the Lakers will square off against their rivals in the best-of-five quarter-final playoff series.
The opener was slated for last night in Dryden, with the outcome not known of press time, and Lakers' head coach/general manager Wayne Strachan knew his squad would be facing a tough test against the Ice Dogs.
The fifth-place Lakers (18-35-2-1) split their final regular-season games here over the weekend, which included a thrilling 6-5 shootout win over the fourth-place Ice Dogs (29-20-4-3) on Friday night before falling 5-3 to the second-place Red Lake Miners (38-15-3-0) the following night.
“I think it was big for us,” Strachan said of the win against the Ice Dogs on Friday night.
“Especially after the last couple of games against them," he added. ”They took it to us pretty good and we needed a rebound from [last] Tuesday night [against the Thunder Bay North Stars].
“We were flat," Strachan admitted. ”A lot of costly errors obviously led to the North Stars jumping on us and capitalizing.
“Heading into the last two games here, we needed to be positive, we needed to work hard, and we talked about, before the game, just about believing and doing what we do best,” he noted.
Strachan believes if all of his players stick to their role, that will give them a huge chance of success in the series against Dryden.
“Getting the win tonight [Friday] is a huge confidence-builder heading into Game 1 into their rink, where we've played fairly well,” he remarked.
“We have two wins in their rink, I believe, and lost twice in a shootout and overtime, so it's not like we're going into a rink where we haven't had success or played them tough,” he reasoned.
“They're a good team," he conceded. "It's not going to be easy but this gives us a step in the right direction to feel confident that we can compete with them and obviously have success against them.”
Lakers' captain Nick Lucas, who missed time down the stretch with an lower-body injury, likely was to rejoin the team's lineup in Game 1 last night.
Fellow forward Reece Hopfner (lower body) has no timeline for his return also is not skating while Kaleb Bruyere now is likely out for the series with an upper-body injury.
Forward Nick Hahkala is recovering from a neck injury sustained against the Ice Dogs here Friday night and was to be a game-time decision last night.
As well, defenceman Presten Bobyk has left the team for personal reasons, with Strachan saying the club has not been informed if he will be returning.
Game 2 of the quarter-finals is set for tonight also in Dryden.
Fort Frances then will host Game 3 on Friday night at the Ice For Kids Arena, with Game 4, if necessary, slated for Saturday here.
If the series ends up going the distance, Dryden will host Game 5 on Monday (March 25).
All games will start at 7:30 p.m. and all will be streamed live online via HockeyTV.com
The other best-of-five quarter-final series pits the third-place Thief River Falls Norskies against the last-place Minnesota Iron Rangers.
The league-leading Thunder Bay North Stars and Miners have first-round byes.
As for the season-ending games here over the weekend, Bryce Young became just the second player in SIJHL history to reach the 60-goal plateau by scoring three times to pace the Miners' offence Saturday night.
After a scoreless first period, Brett Hahkala opened the scoring for the Lakers 3:12 into the second when he wired a pass from Noah Loveday past Miners' goalie Vince Benedetto.
Young replied 10-and-a-half minutes later when he rifled a shot off the left-post and in past Lakers' goalie Matt Booth, only to see Jaedin Ness give the Lakers the lead once more at 16:15.
But Young drew the visitors even for a second time as he finished off a Ty Lawrence feed to knot it at 2-2 after 40 minutes.
The Lakers then took their third lead of the night just over a minute into the third thanks to Loveday, who buried the rebound of Hahkala's shot past Benedetto.
But Red Lake notched the equalizer yet again at 4:18 when Morgan Venne chipped a shot over Booth from in close.
Keegan Tiringer then gave the visitors the eventual winner 21 seconds later when he had pounced on a Lakers' turnover before Young capped his hat trick with a short-handed goal into an empty net in the late going.
Benedetto made 28 saves to earn the win while Booth stopped 31-of-35 shots in taking the loss.
“I liked our game. I thought we had a lot of positives,” Strachan said afterwards.
“[It was] one of the games that I've seen us actually stick to our systems and a lot of good things happened from it,” he lauded.
“Just like I mentioned to those guys, not to take anything away from our effort but it's the little things in a playoff atmosphere game that will cost you,” Strachan added.
"That's kind of what hurt us in the latter part of the third [period].
“Just little things, not being hard on the puck or putting it in safe zones and allowing them [the Miners] to create offence with it,” he noted.
“Hopefully, we can live and learn from it but, you know, we gotta be happy about our effort in the last two games and where we came from a couple of games before this,” Strachan reasoned.
A night earlier, Isaac Baron's goal in the fifth round of the shootout was the difference as the Lakers outlasted the Ice Dogs in a thriller.
Dryden had jumped out to a 2-0 lead on tallies by Eric Stout and Kyle Sargent—only to see Fort Frances counter with markers from Hahkala and affiliate player Jake Barker, who notched his first SIJHL goal.
Each side then scored twice each in the second, with Cameron Coutre and Stout connecting for the Ice Dogs while Barker and Baron replied for the Lakers to knot it at 4-4 after 40 minutes.
“It felt really good,” Barker, who also played with the Muskies this season, said of notching his first two SIJHL goals.
"I've been trying a lot and it finally came so it was really nice.
“I think I've done well," Barker added. "[Junior 'A' hockey] definitely [is] a lot different, a lot bigger, a lot faster, and it's a lot better hockey.”
The two sides went back and forth into the third, as well, with Curtis Magas putting the visitors back into the lead at 2:29 when he redirected a pass from Rayman Bassi past Jacob Gnidziejko.
But Ness forced overtime with 11:21 left in regulation when he tapped home a cross-ice pass from Loveday.
After overtime solved nothing, extra shots were needed to decide the winner.
Ness and Dryden's Siebenga each scored on their teams' third attempt while Baron tucked the decider between the legs of Wilde on his club's fifth shot.
Gnidziejko then stymied Coutre on the last attempt to give the Lakers the extra point.
Gnidziejko finished with 55 saves through 65 minutes, and four more in the shootout, to earn the win while Wilde faced 38 attempts in taking the loss.