BLOOMINGTON, ILL – The Muskegon Lumberjacks had a big bounce back day Saturday.
A night after a disappointing finish against Waterloo, the Lumberjacks took a huge leap towards locking up the top seed in the Eastern Conference with the United States Hockey League playoffs looming.
First, Muskegon took care of its own business with a 5-2 road win over Central Illinois at Grossinger Motors Arena to move its point total to 80 with four regular season games to go.
The Lumberjacks were strong on the penalty kill once again, and actually turned being shorthanded into a plus with three shorthanded goals.
“It was a nice win, I thought we played well all weekend,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “We did lots of good things this weekend. It was disappointing not to finish it Friday, but the guys bounced back really well (Saturday).”
Second, all three teams chasing Muskegon lost Saturday night to help put the Lumberjacks on the brink of winning the East.
Waterloo helped Muskegon one night after beating them with a 7-5 win over Chicago, which at most can tie Muskegon at 80 points if it wins its remaining four games and Muskegon loses all four in regulation.
Youngstown was officially eliminated from a chance at the top spot with its 8-1 loss to Team USA. The Phantoms can at most get up to 79 points.
The one team which can pass the Lumberjacks is Cedar Rapids, which has five games remaining and could get up to 81 points. The RoughRiders lost 5-0 to Sioux Falls Saturday to put Muskegon on win away from securing the top spot.
“Hopefully we’ll take care of that next weekend,” said Hamilton, whose squad travels to Madison next Friday and Green Bay next Saturday.
Muskegon’s win was especially impressive considering the fashion in which it lost Friday night, it had to travel to Bloomington and it was missing several key offensive players.
The last time the Lumberjacks faced the Flying Aces they failed to score a goal the entire 60 minutes, but Saturday it scored three times in the first 20 minutes.
“The bench was pretty short today with only 10 forwards and six defenseman, but the guys dug deep,” Hamilton said. “Everyone’s happy with how we played (Saturday).
The Lumberjacks played without Max Ellis, Mikael Hakkarainen, Cam Knuble and Jack Williams, so it relied on its penalty-killing unit to provide some offense.
Nolan Sullivan got the Lumberjacks on the board at 12:08 with the first shorty of the night with assists from Declan Carlile and Bobby Lynch. On the same penalty kill Andrej Kollar scored shorthanded 1:15 later from James McIsaac.
Two minutes later Bukes notched his sixth goal of the season from McIsaac and Jagger Joshua for the commanding 3-0 lead.
The Lumberjacks became even more shorthanded 30 seconds later as Bukes picked up a game misconduct for head contact.
The Flying Aces found their footing in the second period and made it 3-1 at the 7:49 mark thanks to Stephen Halliday.
Muskegon had more shorthanded magic coming, though, as Oliver MacDonald connected just 49 seconds into the third period, and Brandon Bussi made 24 saves on 26 shots to make it stand up.
Own Farris added an empty-net goal with 2:07 left on an assist from Ryan Savage.
For the complete USHL standings, click here.