The Fort Frances Lakers achieved a minor victory of sorts last Thursday with a 6-3 pounding of the K&A Wolverines in Thunder Bay, but still were looking to get their first home-ice win of the season when they welcomed the Dryden Ice Dogs to the Ice For Kids Arena last night (the outcome was unavailable prior to press time).
Dryden came to town sporting an impressive 10-1 record in the SIJHL standings—second only to the 11-1 mark of the defending champion Fort William North Stars.
The Lakers (3-7-2) had lost all three meetings so far between the rival clubs, but it certainly hasn’t been for lack of effort.
Each of the previous two games prior to last night went to overtime, with the Ice Dogs narrowly coming out on top both times.
“We have to do the same things we did [Thursday]. Have to forget about the Fort William weekend [losses],” Lakers’ defenceman Ben Hilborn stressed.
“We’ve got to build off our last win, and keep working hard and getting lots of shots.
“The last two games [against Dryden] went into overtime, and this time we have to capitalize and use home ice to our advantage,” Hilborn added.
The Lakers endured a tough practice Monday in preparation for last night’s game.
“We just got bag skated [Monday] because a few guys weren’t following the rules this weekend, so the whole team has to pay the consequences for that,” Hilborn remarked.
Home has not been where the heart is for the Lakers so far—registering an 0-5-1 record at the IFK Arena while, by contrast, are 3-2-1 away from Fort Frances.
“I don’t know exactly what’s been going on [at home],” Hilborn lamented. “Maybe some guys have nerves, or can’t step up to the expectations, but I really don’t know.
“I, myself, really enjoy playing at home,” he added. “I think we have the best ice in the league and the best fans.”
The Lakers got off the schnide in a big way last Thursday night with a six-goal explosion against the host Wolverines, led by Colton Kennedy’s two goals and one assist.
Kennedy has been one of only a few bright spots thus far, going into last night’s game with 10 goals and 19 points—second only to Fort William’s Mitch Forbes (25 points) in the SIJHL scoring race.
The road win snapped a three-game losing skid.
Injured forwards Byron Katapaytuk, Tyler Stevenson, and Brendan Muise all returned to the lineup in Thunder Bay and made an immediate impact—combining for three goals and four assists.
Muise led the way with a pair of goals, Katapaytuk had a goal and an assist, and Stevenson registered three assists (Muise is no longer with the team stemming from an off-ice incident on the weekend).
“We got a lot of key players back, our whole second line there, and they produced right off the bat with three goals,” Hilborn noted.
“We played them as a line, and they all came out big and played a smart hockey game,” Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan agreed.
Mike Jourdain netted the other goal for the Lakers while Alex Porrier, Drew Childs, and Rory McKie replied for the Wolverines (1-12-2).
Zac McMichael, in his first start between the pipes since Oct. 9, stopped 31 shots to earn his second win in a Lakers’ uniform.
“It was a team effort,” Strachan lauded. “In the first, it was only 1-1, but the play was not evident of the score. We had many opportunities and were snake-bitten.
“It was the best period of the year for some of our player who are in the dog house,” he added.
“In the second, we came out with all cylinders firing,” Strachan recalled. “Our forwards were forechecking hard, we were making smart decisions to break out of our own end, and we had players going to the net hard and prowling to score goals.
“The third we started the same way, but after we went up 6-2, we started to get sloppy and play their brand of hockey.”
A big improvement of late has been the success of the penalty kill, which limited the Wolverines to one five-on-three goal in seven chances.
“[The] penalty kill was much better, and has been over the last four-six games,” Strachan remarked.
“We have gotten pucks out of our zone much better, concentrated on intensity and out-working the other five players on the ice, pressured much harder in our zone, and caused turnovers.”
The Lakers’ penalty kill is operating at a 73.8 percent success rate—still ranked last among the five full-time members of the league but up from the sub-60 percent mark it was hovering around earlier this month.
The squad has benefitted from a “Western Invasion” of sorts this season, with Hilborn, Stevenson, and Connor Foster all hailing from Edmonton.
“We grew up playing against each other and now we’re playing together, and it’s nice having some chemistry off the bat,” Hilborn explained.
Hilborn was made aware of Fort Frances by former Jr. Sabre and Edmonton native, Brendan Baumgartner.
“I know ‘Baumer,’ played minor hockey and summer hockey with him,” Hilborn said. “He gave me a good word on Fort Frances, had nothing bad to say about the town.”
In related news, Laker fans are encouraged to bring non-perishable food items for the Salvation Army and United Native Friendship Centre food banks as well as toys to the Nov. 6 and Nov. 8 home games against the K&A Wolverines and Fort William North Stars, respectively.
The promotion will continue Nov. 24 when the Wisconsin Mustangs visit the Ice For Kids Arena.
Fans who bring along items will be issued draw tickets for prizes donated by local merchants.