By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks made two big trades earlier this week, to add some spark to the lineup and help pull the team out of its recent slump.
The new guys did their part on Wednesday, contributing three of the Lumberjacks’ six goals. Unfortunately the Jacks’ defense and goaltending didn’t keep up, and Muskegon fell 8-6 to the Team USA Under-17 squad at L.C. Walker Arena.
Dylan Duke led the Team USA attack with a three-goal hat trick. Caden Brown and Liam Gilmartin both added two tallies.
The loss was the fourth in a row for the Lumberjacks, who are now are now 2-5-1 in November. The defeat left the Jacks with an 8-9-1 overall record, dropping them below the .500 mark for the first time since Oct. 19.
The Lumberjacks will try to snap their losing streak this weekend against the first-place Chicago Steel. Muskegon will be in Chicago on Friday, then the teams will return to Muskegon for the second game of the series on Saturday at 7:05 p.m.
The good news in the game was that two of the players that the Jacks acquired in a trade with Omaha on Monday – Cameron Berg and Rhett Pitlick – brought a lot of offense. Berg, who only had two goals with Omaha, scored twice in his Muskegon debut, while Pitlick, the brother of former Lumberjacks star Rem Pitlick, found the net once.
“We obviously picked up a lot of speed,” said Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton about his new players. “Now we just have to figure out how to use that offense and speed while not giving up so many odd-man rushes.
“From our side it was a little bit like a preseason game with the way we played. Our guys were overworking instead of playing smarter on the system side.”
The Lumberjacks actually had many scoring opportunities throughout the game. They outshot Team USA 40-36 and seemed like they could have hit double figures on the scoreboard.
They had at least 10 breakaways or odd-man rushes, but fanned on too many open-net opportunities, had at least five or six shots hit the goalposts, and had several attempts thwarted by Team USA goalies Gibson Homer, who played about a period and a half, and Kaiden Mbereko.
Team USA also had lots of scoring chances, due to the Jacks’ wobbly defense, and broke open the game with a four-goal third period. All four of those goals were scored on new Lumberjacks backup goalie Ewan McDevitt, who replaced starter Noah Giesbrecht midway through the second period.
The Lumberjacks were playing with three new defensemen in the lineup, including two who came in this week’s trades.
“We have been looking to improve on our defense since the start of the season,” Hamilton said. “A lot of it tonight was not being familiar with each other, and we have to clean some things up.”
Team USA jumped out to a 2-0 lead on first period goals by Duke and Brown.
Artem Schlaine, playing his third game for the Lumberjacks, scored late in the first period and the Lumberjacks trailed 2-1 at the first break.
Muskegon tied the game 2-2 when Pitlick scored his first Muskegon goal at 4:29 of the second period, after taking a nice pass from linemate Danil Gushchin. Team USA followed with goals by Gilmartin and Duke to take a 4-2 lead at 8:05 of the second, prompting Muskegon to change goalies.
Jack Williams and Berg scored for the Lumberjacks at 9:48 and 12:47 of the second period, respectively, and the score was tied 4-4 after two.
Team USA pulled ahead with a power play goal by Jack Devine just 1:45 into the third period. Berg tied the score 5-5 with his second goal at the 6:33 mark.
Then the visitors pulled away, outscoring the Jacks 3-1 in the last 12 minutes of the game, with goals from Gilmartin, Duke and Brown. Muskegon’s last goal came from AJ Hodges.