MUSKEGON, MI - The Muskegon Lumberjacks were able to overcome a gut-wrenching game one defeat in overtime with a game two victory over the Chicago Steel in the Eastern Conference Finals, tying things at one win each with the series heading to Chicago.
Both games one and two were decided by a single goal, and game one took overtime before Chicago emerged victorious. The top two seeds in the East played six regular-season matchups without playing a single one-goal game, but that has changed in this best-of-five playoff series.
“It came down to our leaders after game one,” said head coach Mike Hamilton. “Game two could have gone either way with how tough game one was. We got a huge goal 19 seconds into game two from Jagger Joshua that set the tone as to how we would respond after a very tough game one loss. I could’ve said whatever I wanted to, but it came down to the leaders and they came through.”
Now, the series shifts to Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, IL for games three and four of the Conference Finals. Having taken game one in Muskegon, Chicago now has the opportunity to advance to the Clark Cup Finals with a pair of home wins. The Jacks, on the other hand, are hoping to split the pair of road games and return home for game five on Monday, May 6th.
Game three is scheduled for Friday at 8:05pm, while game four is slated to begin on Saturday at 8:05pm.
Muskegon has gotten major contributions in this series from forwards Bobby Lynch and Mikael Hakkarainen, who have been among the Jacks’ leaders all year. Lynch has a team-leading four points in the series so far, while Hakkarainen’s three goals pace the Jacks in that department.
Defensively, Alex Yakovenko and Colby Bukes haven’t missed a beat transitioning to playoff hockey. Yakovenko has racked up six points in the postseason, while Bukes has scored a pair of goals, tied for the most of any blueliner whose team remains alive.
“That pair compliments each other so well,” said Hamilton. “When one takes a risk, the other plays safe. It’s almost like they can make passes to each other without looking.”
“The d-group as a whole has been phenomenal,” Hamilton continued. “[Cameron] McDonald and [Declan] Carlile have been out against their top line and done great. Then, our third pair is complete shutdown with [Matt] Staudacher and [Nash] Nienhuis or [Sam] Miller.”
The entire defensive corps, and netminder Brandon Bussi, have had their hands full with a lightning-quick Chicago offense that has scored five or more times twice already this postseason, one being game one’s 5-4 victory over Muskegon. USHL scoring champion Nick Abruzzese has been electrifying throughout the playoffs, tallying five goals and 11 points to lead all USHL playoff skaters. It was Abruzzese who sunk the Lumberjacks in game one, scoring the overtime winner for Chicago.
“I would have to say, up front their forward lines bring everything we can handle,” said Hamilton. “It’s been so close because both teams are doing a great job of matching up, and both teams are very good in special teams. There are no mismatches to be found- two very evenly matched teams”
The Jacks will have to travel to enemy territory for games three and four, but that’s not something that has slowed them down this season. In fact, Muskegon’s road record of 22-6-3 during the regular season was better than their home record of 19-11-1. Muskegon had the best road record of any USHL team, and beat the Steel at Fox Valley Ice Arena in two of the three matchups there.
“Our success on the road starts with how we prepare and how we travel,” said Hamilton. “We traveled the second-most miles of any team this year, but it never felt that way because the ownership allows us to travel in style and we eat great on the road.”
“On the road, there’s a little extra time to hang out, and with our group, with the leaders we have, it’s well spent.”
If pushed to a game 5 in this series, that will be hosted at the L.C. Walker Arena on Monday, May 6 at 7:15 PM. Tickets available at the arena's Team Store and Box Office or by calling 231.726.2400.