The Fort Frances Lakers' first shutout of the season couldn't have come at a better time.
Alex Bugeja was stellar in turning aside all 41 shots he faced to earn his first career SIJHL shutout as the Lakers shut down the league-leading North Stars 2-0 on Saturday night here as Fort Frances took three of a possible four points in the home-and-home series after falling 6-5 in overtime on Friday night in Thunder Bay.
The Lakers' defence buckled down late in their home win on Saturday night at the Ice For Kids Arena, successfully killing off a late penalty to preserve the shutout, and it's something the squad hopes to build on as they conclude the SIJHL regular season this week.
“Tonight to shut them down like we did and play smart defensively, the opportunities we gave up, 'Buge' stood tall in net and that's what you need at this time of the year,” Lakers' head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan said after Saturday's win on home ice.
“It just goes to show ourselves when we put our minds to it, we can be a good hockey team and accomplish anything that we set out to do.”
The win helped the Lakers improve to 20-27-4-2 heading into last night's game here against those same North Stars, with the outcome not known as of press time.
The Lakers next will host the fifth-place Wisconsin Lumberjacks (21-27-5-1) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night, who they trail by just two points in the standings.
Fort Frances then will end the regular season with another home game on Saturday when they battle the second-place Red Lake Miners (31-18-3-2) at 7:30 p.m.
Both games will take place at the Ice For Kids Arena in Fort Frances.
“We definitely want to use home ice to our advantage and it's something we've been talking about lately in getting tougher to play against at home,” said Strachan.
"I think we've done a pretty good job of that through our last few games here and we just wanna continue to build. We have a goal, we wanna get to fifth [place], we can't get to fourth now. We want fifth place and obviously I think we have more to prove to ourselves, especially Tuesday night when Thunder Bay comes back.
“Then Friday's gonna be a huge game,” he stressed.
“They [the Lumberjacks] waxed us pretty bad the last time we played them down there and a little bit of retribution or payback I think is definitely in order and it could be the deciding factor of who gets fifth place.”
As for the weekend home-and-home series against Thunder Bay, the Lakers did a great job shutting down the North Stars' potent attack here on Saturday night.
Neither team could find the back through the first 40 minutes, with the North Stars holding a 29-22 advantage in shots on goal.
Just 30 seconds into the third, a player was checked into the glass at the penalty box, causing it to shatter and forcing a lengthy delay in the game as it was cleaned up and the pane was replaced.
But once play resumed, the Lakers were finally able to get on the board on a power play nearly nine minutes in as Flynn Perry ripped a one-timer in the high slot off a Mathieu Harrold feed that flew into the top left-hand corner of the net.
Fort Frances then added some insurance with another power-play goal at 16:57 as Colton Bodnar's blast from the point hit Tyler Malpass, who was parked in front of former Lakers' goalie Dylan Kosik, and it bounced in to round out the scoring.
Thunder Bay pulled Kosik for the final 2:43 of regulation, that also included a power play, but Bugeja was not to be beaten on that night.
Kosik was solid in making 32 stops in a losing cause for the North Stars, who fell to 34-16-3.
“The main plan was to stay calm and stay big, didn't wanna give them an inch at any point throughout the game,” Bugeja said after the game.
“Everybody was working hard, pucks were getting out today, the forwards were just buzzing and basically I just wanted to keep the puck out of my net for those last two minutes on that [penalty] kill. It was a little scary, for sure, but everybody played well.”
On Friday night, Tyler Malpass netted a hat trick for the Lakers, including the tying goal with 22 seconds left in regulation, but it was the Stars who prevailed 6-5 in an overtime thriller at the Fort William Gardens.
Cody Bruchkowski, who leads the SIJHL with 58 goals, responded with a hat trick of his own for the North Stars while Alex Erwin buried the OT winner with 26 seconds remaining in the extra frame.
Nikolas Campbell and Joel Willan also scored for Thunder Bay while Kosik earned the win in lengthy relief by making 19 saves.
Seth McKay started the game for the North Stars, allowing three goals against on 13 shots.
Nakoda Thunderchief and Perry also tallied for the Lakers while Dean Buchholz turned aside 35 shots in taking the loss.
“[Friday] night was kind of a wild affair, back and forth for the first 30 minutes and then kind of settled down a little bit,” Strachan recalled.
“We had to battle back and show some character at the end to tie it late. We played a strong hockey game, you gotta contain certain guys on their team and I think tonight [Saturday] proved that. It was solid team effort throughout the weekend and I think a big statement for ourselves to really see what we can do against a good hockey team, and I think we came through pretty well.”