The Fort Frances Lakers have started the season strong in winning three of their first four games, but playing a more physical brand of hockey is something head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan is hoping his squad will adapt to.
Fort Frances (3-1-0-0) won its home-opener 6-5 over the Minnesota Iron Rangers (0-3-0-0) on Friday night on the back of Noah Loveday's late goal.
But the following night, the red-hot Thunder Bay North Stars (4-0-1-0) came to town and skated away with a 5-3 victory—giving them their third win in as many nights.
Strachan feels as though not being physical enough in the early going has been a real problem for the Lakers, and that it was an issue again during their home games over the weekend.
“I didn't like our compete level at times," he remarked. ”We were soft and still have bad habits of stick-checking and circling away from checks.
“We turned the puck over near our blueline far too many times, especially [on] Saturday,” he stressed.
Although that definitely is an area Strachan would like his players to clean up, he has seen a lot of positives from his roster so far.
“I like a lot of things about our team thus far into the season," he enthused. ”We have good speed and when we play at a high intensity, we seem to move the puck well and that translates into good scoring opportunities.
"We have showed the ability to push back and [had] good character in our three wins.
“I hope we got our eyes opened a bit on Saturday versus the North Stars on what it will take to compete with the top teams in the league, or be a top team in the league,” Strachan added.
The Lakers will cap a three-game homestand this Friday when they host the fifth-place Thief River Falls Norskies (1-2-0-0) at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.
Then the following night, they'll battle the Iron Rangers at 7 p.m. down in Hoyt Lakes.
Strachan had some areas in mind that his squad would be working on diligently at practice this week.
“Lots of puck skill drills, both with and without,” he revealed.
“Defensively, we have to be better at stick-on-puck and taking the body all through our game,” he noted.
“Offensively, we have to learn patience and to not give the puck up so easily.”
As for the challenges Strachan thought both the Norskies and Iron Rangers would provide for the Lakers this weekend, he knew they would be facing some stiff competition in trying to improve on their early-season record.
“The Norskies have some top returning players all through their lineup,” he noted.
"We will have to play 60 minutes and be intense in all areas to have success.
“On Saturday, we need to play our game and attack fast,” he added.
“We [also] need to control our emotions and stay out of the penalty box.”
As for the two home games last weekend, the Lakers jumped out to a good start Saturday night in their 5-3 loss to the North Stars.
Fort Frances grabbed an early 2-0 lead in the first period on tallies by Kendyn Faragher (his first in the SIJHL) and Chase Robideau.
But the North Stars cut the deficit in half before the period was over when Robert Tyska finished off the work by teammates Jacob Anttonen and Jonathan Kilby.
Thunder Bay then was quick out of the gate to start the second as Keighan Gerrie netted his league-leading seventh goal of the season just 21 seconds in.
Michael Vecchio later notched his first SIJHL goal to put the guests ahead for good.
The visitors capped a strong period when Ryan Mignault set up Joel Willan with 45 seconds left to make it 4-2.
The Lakers trimmed it to 4-3 with 3:35 to go in regulation time when Nick Lucas was left with a tap-in—giving him points in five-straight games dating back to last season.
Fort Frances then pulled starter Matt Booth in favour of an extra attacker to try and force overtime but Mignault iced it with an empty-netter from long range.
Brock Aiken earned the win for the North Stars, making 29 stops, while Booth faced 39 shots in taking the loss.
The previous night, it was the Lakers taking a wild 6-5 decision against the Iron Rangers.
In his first action of the season, Loveday notched the game-winning goal with just 26 seconds left in regulation time to lift the Lakers to victory in their home-opener.
A free-wheeling first period saw each side tally twice, with former Laker Christian Ward and Lukas Lundgren scoring for Minnesota while MacKenzie Flett (power play) and Lucas (even-strength) countered for Fort Frances.
Special teams were pivotal in the second period as Wyatt Phaneuf and Aaron Koivunen each connected on the man-advantage to put the visitors up 4-2.
But the Lakers, who had the recently-signed Reece Hopfner miss on a penalty shot earlier in the frame, battled back late in the period when Kirk Coppock scored his third goal of the season on a power play at 17:21 to trim it to 4-3.
“He is a young guy with good size who can bring energy, depth, and—we hope—secondary scoring,” Strachan said about Hopfner.
“He is playing out of position so I would like to evaluate him more [as he is] not used to playing the wing," he added, noting Hopfner "has good work ethic and created some nice plays down low in our opposition's end.”
Lucas then knotted it 4-4 with just 11 seconds left in the second when his shot bounced off a few skates and into the Minnesota net.
A lengthy man-advantage to begin the third helped Fort Frances take its first lead when Dustin Roitelman found the back of the net with a slapshot at 5:31.
It stayed that way until late in regulation, when Minnesota's Evan Hendrickson notched the equalizer with 1:40 left.
But with overtime looming, Loveday struck when he tipped Colton Bodnar's point shot past Iron Rangers' goalie Nick Corneliusen to eke out the victory.
Fort Frances outshot Minnesota 58-24, with Booth earning the win while Corneliusen made 50-plus saves in defeat.
In other recent team moves, the Lakers dealt Fort Frances native Ian Tookenay to the Dauphin Kings (MJHL) for a development player fee back on Sept. 12 after he requested to be moved there.
On the injury front for this weekend, the Lakers will be without the services of forwards Jakob Ruck (fractured wrist), Jaedin Ness (knee), and Ethan Knutsen (knee).
As well, goalie Tyler Szturm is dealing with foot/ankle problem.