PLYMOUTH, MI – The Muskegon Lumberjacks may have been missing half of their team, but they still gutted out a win Thursday in their second-to-last regular season game.
The Lumberjacks proved opportunistic, as even though host Team USA U17 out-shot them 34-16 they grabbed a 3-2 win in their final road contest.
Egor Afanasyev tallied twice, including the game-winning goal with 7:09 left in the third period, to lead Muskegon to its East-leading 41st win of the season.
The Lumberjacks have been on the other side of those games several times this season.
“I thought the 17s were really good this game,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “Our young guys were trying to figure out the pace of the game at the start, but it was fun to see some of the young guys’ potential as the game went on as they got going.”
Afanasyev scored his 26th goal of the season at 6:12 of the opening period for a 1-0 Lumberjacks lead, and added his 27th to cap their fourth straight win.
Muskegon now has 86 points with only its regular season and home finale remaining Saturday at 7:15 p.m. against rival Chicago.
Team USA meanwhile is in fifth place with 68 points with two games remaining against Youngstown.
Ryan McInchak stood tall in net for the Lumberjacks and made 32 saves to earn his eighth win of the season.
“It’s good to see Egor putting away his chances,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully he can carry that into the playoffs
“McInchak has had two really strong games in a row. He’s kind of in the situation where we’re evaluating his game to see if he can handle the load for us next season. He’s won us a few games now, and tonight he kept us in and gave us a chance.”
Oliver MacDonald also had a strong game for Muskegon. He led the team in shots on goal with six and scored his eighth goal of the season at 13:26 of the first period to give the guests a 2-0 lead.
“Oliver has been one of our best players the last month,” Hamilton said. “He’s been doing a good job of using his speed. It’s good to see him take on a bigger role. Earlier he was working hard just to stay in the lineup, then he stepped into a defensive specialist role, and now we’re seeing his full game as he’s added some offense.”
A good hard forecheck netted Afanasyev’s first goal, and good hustle from Jack Williams negated an icing call led to the second goal. After Williams reached the puck he sent a nifty backhand pass into the slot to set up MacDonald, who pounded it into the net from close range.
Team USA got rolling in the second period and netted two goals to tie the score. Ty Smilanic tallied both goals, the first at 3:48 and the second at 11:35, to knot the score at 2-all for the hosts.
Another good pass, this time from Nic Belpedio, set up the game-winning goal.
Belpedio skated down the left side and around a sprawled out Team USA defender and passed across the front of the crease to a streaking Afanasyev, who was able to bury the shot before the net came off its mooring.
“It was good to see what the young guys are able to bring,” Hamilton added. “Obviously we’ll have some stiff competition Saturday. Hopefully they’ll step up and do a good job for us.”
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