THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO
Article By: Gary Moskalyk, Special to the SIJHL
March 29, 2022
In the last SIJHL playoffs, the Dryden GM Ice Dogs met the Fort Frances Lakers in the opening round and swept them in three games. To say they are familiar playoff foes though is a bit of a stretch. The calendar’s turned over three full times since the Ice Dogs sealed the deal with a 6-2 victory over the Lakers at Ice for Kids Arena on March 22, 2019.
Fort Frances’ Nicholas Hahkala – who recorded one goal in three games – is the only active player to have skated in the series (current Laker Kaleb Bruyere was also on the roster but did not see action).
The best-of-five format will have the Ice Dogs host the opening two games (March 29 and 31st, 7:30pm, Dryden Memorial Arena). The series will switch to Fort Frances’ Ice for Kids Arena on April 1 and, if necessary, April 2. Should the series go the distance, game 5 will be back in Dryden on Monday, April 4.
Dryden (26-15-3-1, 3rd seed) holds the statistical advantage in almost every category over the Fort Frances (5-35-1-0, 6th seed) side. In head-to-head action, Dryden owns a 7-1-1 record with the only blemishes being a 4-3 regulation loss in October, and a 5-4 overtime loss on February 25th. Both losses came in Fort Frances.
Dryden’s .622 winning percentage dwarfs the Lakers’ .134 mark, and overall, the Ice Dogs were +76 in goal differential while Fort Frances was -112. Dryden has points in its last four games while the Lakers are winless in 10.
All of these stats are on paper. The best-of-five series will be settled on the ice.
“We’re our own worst enemy. When we follow our game plan and put the work in we’re a hard team to beat. We’re bigger than all the teams,” offered Dryden head coach Kurt Walsten. “Obviously we’re a physical team and all that. Taking Fort for granted that’s how you become the Maple Leafs.” (The Leafs just defeated first place Florida 5-2 but lost to last place Montreal a few days prior.)
“What happened in the regular season means nothing. You know, every team is zero wins, zero losses,” Walsten added. “The first series is three-out-of-five. The next two rounds are four-out-of-seven. You want to win a championship here you have to win 11 games. I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve won championships here in this league. There’s good players on every team. You have to put the work in.”
“We go through video all that good stuff, but on Tuesday your better players have to be your better players. A team game means everyone on the team has to do something to help us win. You’re not going to win with 10 guys working hard and 10 not. When you play that way the hockey gods have a way of punishing teams like that. . . It’s a pretty balanced league. Sure, we have Max Collette leading the league in scoring. But on any given night any team in this league can beat any team.”
The aforementioned Collette led the SIJHL in scoring with 45 goals in 43 games, adding 36 helpers for 81 points. Tristan Takats had 54 points with 26 goals, Brady Frattinger and Cameron Ware had 44 points each, Tyler Earl had 30. Four other players logged 20 points or more.
“I guess last year, kind of a COVID year, I went to a couple camps. I ended up with the Selkirk Steelers (Manitoba Junior Hockey League) for a couple games. As COVID was coming in, the league was kind of shutting down,” said Collette, who won the SIJHL points race by 14 over Red Lake’s Jordan Baranesky. “Got an opportunity to come out here and decided ‘Yeah, sure. Might as well try it out.’ Played a couple games, ended up really liking it and wanted to come back.”
Of the upcoming series with the Lakers, the 5’9″, 165-lb Collette weighed in.
“Good to get the playoffs started. Been a long time since we’ve had playoffs. We’ve won our last couple games here, on a little roll. The attitude is good. Boys are ready to go. . . That’s the nice thing about this league. Even the more bottom teams are able to compete and still beat those top teams. We’ve had a couple of close games with Fort Frances before, so they’re not to be taken lightly. As long as we do our thing and play hard I’m sure we’ll come out with win.”
Fort Frances head coach Ron MacKinnon feels his team can win against Dryden.
“We definitely think we have a chance. We are getting some bodies back. Hopefully we can ice a full line-up on Tuesday. The last month or so we’ve been playing with three lines and four or five ‘D’, so … A couple of guys are coming back. We have beat Dryden a couple of times this year. They are tough to play against. We definitely have to play with discipline. Just play together.
“I will say about the kids, our five wins, a lot of the games were very close,” he continued. “We didn’t quit. We kept going. Hopefully we get a couple of bounces, a little bit of positive energy and away we go.”
The Lakers bolstered their line-up at the January trade deadline with a series of player acquisitions. Around the same time, McKinnon took over from Dave Allison, who left for another coaching opportunity.
“It was a numbers move, and it was also a move to get a little younger,” said MacKinnon.
The Lakers have a couple of injured players on the verge of coming back and should be able to round out their roster with affiliated players if necessary.
“Dryden’s a tough team to play against. They play physical. On average, they’re the biggest team in the league,” said MacKinnon. Dryden led the league with 1,188 PIMs. “They play that way. If we can get them to chase a little bit, and not play into their style we’ll obviously have a better chance. If we get into their style of play, try to beat them with that, it’ll be tough.”
Mason Meyer (4.07, .902) and Ethan Hein (4.64, .897) will share goaltending duties.
“They’ve been 50/50 pretty much all this year. I call it 1A, 1B. They’ve both been good for us,” said MacKinnon. “They’ve faced a lot of shots. They’ve both been solid. That’s one position on our team that we really haven’t had to worry about.
“We’ll go one game at a time, one period at a time, one shift at a time, see what happens.”
Ian Kimble, traded from Dryden to Fort Frances, accumulated 24 points to lead the team in combined points. Ty Millgate, Ethan Elgie and Brad Arnott had 15 points each. The Lakers scored just over two goals a game, clicked at a 12.6% rate on the power play and killed off 67.9% of their penalties.
Forward Rylin Philpott-Way has 25 SIJHL games on his resume, just 14 with Fort Frances. Despite his short tenure, Philpott-Way was selected team captain.
“As long as we keep positive, keep healthy bodies on our bench, I genuinely believe that this team has a shot to go far in the playoffs,” said Philpott-Way, who has amassed 76 penalty minutes. “I know our record doesn’t show a lot of that but I believe that after the break, the trades that we made, the new players that we have acquired–the team that we do have is capable of going far in the playoffs. Hard work and determination, no one is counted out here.
“I believe a strong fore-check and not backing down (is the key). Dryden is a very powerful team,” he continued. “They love to throw the hits around. As long as we can chuck it back at them we’ll be okay.”
Philpott-Way eloquently summarized the first round of 2022 SIJHL playoffs.
“That’s the beautiful thing about the playoffs. No one’s counted out and anything can happen