The SIJHL pre-season officially is in the books and the Fort Frances Lakers now are looking forward to the regular season.
The squad split a home-and-home series with the Red Lake Miners over the weekend to finish its exhibition schedule with a 3-1 record.
The Lakers used a pair of third-period goals to escape with a 3-2 overtime win Friday night at the Ice For Kids Arena, then followed that up the following night with a hard-fought 7-5 loss at the Cochenour Arena.
The SIJHL's 18th season gets underway for the Lakers this Friday when they take on the two-time defending champion GM Ice Dogs at 7:30 p.m. in Dryden.
“Dryden will be hungry to show why they were the league's best the last two seasons,” Lakers' head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan said about the challenge the Ice Dogs will present for his team.
“They have a good core of veterans returning and I don't see their intensity lacking come Friday,” he noted.
“We will have to be prepared and ready to work," Strachan stressed. ”They play an in-your-face style and we need to be ready to compete and win battles.
“We have to use our speed and move pucks quickly to create offence against them [and] play a consistent 60-minute hockey game,” he added.
As for the Lakers' final two pre-season games, it was the Miners who got goals from seven different players to pull out a 7-5 victory Saturday night at the Cochenour Arena.
Each team tallied twice in the first period, with Christian Ward at even strength and Bryce Young via the man advantage connecting for Red Lake while Jaedin Ness notched both Fort Frances markers.
In a back-and-forth second period, Anthony Antonelli gave the Lakers the lead at 1:50 but then Jun Yi Jhong struck on the power play to tie things up once again.
After Kirk Coppock converted on a man advantage for the Lakers later in the frame, the Miners notched a pair of late goals by Aiden Gleisner and Dante Tisi to give them a 5-4 lead after 40 minutes.
Continuing to trade chances, Red Lake got third-period tallies from Owen Lee and Ty Lawrence, sandwiched around one by Kaleb Bruyere of the Lakers, to cap the scoring.
Jordan Tkachuk dished out three assists to help the Miners' offence while Nick Lucas had a couple of helpers for the Lakers.
The Lakers outshot the Miners 36-28.
On Friday night, Antonelli's goal 2:57 into overtime was the difference as the Lakers rallied late to edge the visiting Miners 3-2 at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Red Lake netted the lone tally of the first period when Kyle Uzelman took a feed from Ward and tucked one past Booth just over eight minutes into the game.
After a scoreless second period, Kevin Duguid doubled the visitors' lead to 2-0 only 1:25 into third when he fired home a slapshot from just inside the blueline.
The Lakers finally got on the board eight-and-a-half minutes into the frame when Lucas knuckled one past Miners' goalie Vince Benedetto from the left side of the net.
After a Miners' turnover at their own blueline, Ethan Knutsen knotted it at 2-2 with 5:12 left in regulation time as he broke in on a 2-on-0 with Isaac Baron before tucking a feed past Benedetto.
Fort Frances had a chance to win it in the dying seconds of regulation time but Benedetto thwarted a breakaway attempt.
Antonelli then went in on a 2-on-1 with Cole Allan, who dished a slick pass over to him, and made no mistake in beating Benedetto to give the Lakers the win.
The Lakers outshot the Miners 50-37, with Booth picking up the win while Benedetto was tagged with the loss.
“I liked our compete level and battle for the most part in both games,” noted Strachan.
“In Game 1, I liked the character we showed in battling back to tie and win the game,” he remarked.
"We had the same, at times, in Game 2, as well.
“I felt we defended fairly well in keeping most opportunities to the perimeter, especially in Game 1,” he added.
“I like our speed. I felt we did a good job attacking in the offensive end and creating scoring chances,” Strachan said about what he liked from his team during the pre-season.
“I like our camaraderie to this point, our work ethic for the most part, and that we are keying into our identity as a team,” he added.
Although Strachan was pleased, for the most part, with how his squad played during the pre-season, he did note discipline on the ice seems to be an issue in the early going.
“Discipline in both games [against Red Lake] was not at a level we need to have success in the league,” he conceded.
“Our emotions need to stay on an even-keel," he stressed. "We need to stop on pucks, not skate by our checks, and finish checks to cause turnovers.”
A number of players stood out to Strachan during exhibition play and he's looking forward to seeing them fare well moving forward.
“I liked Matt Booth's game versus the Miners,” he lauded.
“On defence, Nate Drobnick and Colton Bodnar have paired up well, MacKenzie Flett's game has improved, and up front I have liked the play of Nick Lucas, Nick Hahkala, and Isaac Baron," he noted, adding "newcomer Ethan Knutsen has played well.”
With the challenge of facing the Ice Dogs on the road this Friday, Strachan had specific areas in mind that his players will be working on in practice this week.
“We will continue to work on speed, quick transition, and our defensive end,” he noted.
“Special teams is also a priority at this time of the season.”
The Lakers then will head to Hoyt Lakes on Saturday night to face the Minnesota Iron Rangers.
Their home-opener is slated for Friday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. against those same Iron Rangers.