MADISON, WISC – The Muskegon Lumberjacks earned the top seed in the upcoming Eastern Conference playoffs Friday.
The Lumberjacks, who have been in the top spot in the East standings all season, made it official the first chance they got in a hard-fought win at Madison.
Muskegon needed three power-play goals and overtime, but it got the job done 4-3 over the Capitols to wrap up home-ice advantage in each series as long as it stays in the playoffs until the Clark Cup finals.
“This is awesome,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “We ran the table from Day 1. We never gave it up once. Obviously we were tied at the very beginning, but we never relinquished the lead and we consider that a great accomplishment. It’s an honor to wrap it up because there are a lot of good hockey teams.”
Alex Yakovenko put the clincher in the net 3:17 into OT. He got free in the slot for a shot which was saved by Madison goalie Garrett Mackay, but he gave up a rebound which Yakovenko pounced on and backhanded into the net.
The goal set off a celebration not only for the win Friday but for the clinching of the division.
“We’re going to enjoy this one for a little bit,” Hamilton said. “We have to go into Green Bay (Saturday) and we’re going to play hard there like we usually do, and then next week we’ll have a lot of affiliates join us for the last couple of (regular season) games.”
Muskegon finished 3-for-5 on the power play, and made it look easy at times.
The Lumberjacks needed just 34 seconds to score on their first man advantage and just 18 seconds on the second one.
The host Capitols did good work in 5-on-5 hockey in the first half of the game and were rewarded with a 2-1 lead.
Chase Brand gave Madison a 1-0 lead at the 9:55 mark. Jagger Joshua’s unassisted power-play goal for the Lumberjacks knotted things up at 1-all, but Alex Mella gave the hosts another 1-goal advantage at 15:41.
Muskegon ramped up its play in the middle frame and earned a couple of power plays which it took advantage of to take a 3-2 lead into the second intermission. Ryan Savage tied it up at 14:19 from Yakovenko and Egor Afanasyev, and Nolan Sullivan gave the guests their first lead two minutes later with Jack Williams drawing his first assist with the Lumberjacks.
“Overall we played a very solid hockey game, especially when you notice there were a lot of big names not in our lineup,” Hamilton said. “The first period was not our best, but I thought we carried the play in the second and third periods. The effort was critical. It was great to see the guys respond.”
It took a 3-man advantage for Madison to send the game into overtime. Muskegon was whistled for a tripping call with 3:04 to play in regulation, and with the extra attacker applied some pressure until another Muskegon penalty, this time high-sticking, was called 35 seconds later.
The Capitols pulled Mackay, and skated 6-on-3 for 1:12 until Kalle Eriksson found the net with 1:17 left in regulation.
The Lumberjacks survived the final minute and change to make it into OT, goalie Brandon Bussi made a huge save 19 seconds into the extra frame and then Yakovenko worked his magic for the extra point.
Bussi stopped 27 of Madison’s 30 shots on goal to earn the win.
The Lumberjacks were glad to see Matthew Staudacher back on the ice after missing months with an injury.
“It was just great to see (Staudacher) back on the ice,” Hamilton said. “He’s a big piece to the puzzle, so it was great knowing he’s going to be there helping us in the playoffs.”
Max Ellis and Mikael Hakkarainen were sick, Colby Bukes was out serving a suspension and Cam Knuble is still nursing an injury. Also out has been Danil Gushchin, who is playing in a worlds tournament and will not return until the third round of the playoffs if Muskegon is still playing.
The Lumberjacks play at 8:05 p.m. against the Gamblers Saturday. Their final two games will be against the Team USA U17 squad Thursday at 7:00 p.m. and at home on Saturday, April 13 at 7:15 p.m. against Chicago.
For the complete USHL standings, click here.