By Steve Gunn
In late November, the Muskegon Lumberjacks completed a major trade with Omaha, designed to bring more speed and scoring punch to the team following a rough month.
For the next three games, Coach Mike Hamilton had to chance to watch his team compete with the new guys mixed in, and very much liked what he saw. The two main acquisitions from Omaha – forwards Rhett Pitlick and Cam Berg – both started scoring right away, and the team posted a 1-1-1 mark as the reshuffled roster settled in.
Most promising where the last two of those games, when the Jacks went to Chicago and beat the first-place Steel 6-4, then returned home the next night and took the Steel to overtime before losing 4-3.
Unfortunately the fresh attack had to be put on hold after that, because Pitlick and standout forward Danil Gushchin left to compete in the World Junior A Challenge tournament in Canada.
Without them, the Lumberjacks had to play four straight games against two of their toughest opponents, Dubuque and the elite Team USA Under-18 squad. They lost all four and limped into the Christmas break in the midst of a slump.
The good news is that Pitlick and Gushchin will be back in the lineup this weekend when the Lumberjacks resume their season with home games against Madison on Friday and Saturday at 7:05 p.m. each night.
Still missing from the lineup will be high-scoring forward Oliver MacDonald, who was injured in Dubuque and will be recovering for a few weeks.
Now Coach Hamilton and his crew can get back to where they were in the days following the trade, with a faster and more potent lineup. They are hoping their new-look squad can help them shake off what turned out to be a very tough November and most of December.
Since Nov. 2, when the Lumberjacks’ seven-game winning streak was halted, they have posted a 2-10-1 record.
“Those guys add so much speed and skill,” Hamilton said about Gushchin and Pitlick. “And everyone will go back to their regular roles. When they were gone, we had third-line guys moved up into the top six, trying to force things a little bit, and they were close to being shut down.
“Everybody will be back in town on the 25th, we will hit the ice for practice on the 26th, then play on the 27th. As excited as I am to be home with the family for Christmas, I’m also excited to get back on the ice. We have to make a strong push.”
The Lumberjacks will have their work cut out for them when they return to action, if they hope to get back into solid playoff contention.
They are currently 9-13-2 on the season, good for 20 points and seventh place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference standings. The top six teams in the conference will make the playoffs, which begin in April.
Luckily Muskegon is only one point behind sixth-place Cedar Rapids in the standings, and only six points behind Youngstown and Green Bay, who are tied for fourth with 26 points.
The Jacks will have a great opportunity to come out of the gates strong on Friday and Saturday, hosting Madison, which has the league’s worst record at 5-19-1, and has been outscored by opponents this season by 56 goals.
“We have to regain our confidence,” Hamilton said. “We have to come out believing in ourselves. We have three home games to start off with (including a home game on New Year’s Eve), and we have to pressure ourselves to win at least two of those three, at a minimum. That would catapult us off into a very busy January, when we have to start closing the gap with the playoff teams.
“We’re real excited about the speed and skill we picked up (with the November trades), but we still have some deficiencies, like team defense. We are going to be focusing on improving that on a daily basis. Our penalty killing has been slipping a little bit lately, too, and the two of those kind of go together.
“As you saw (after the trades), we were putting up four or five goals a game. We are going to win a lot of games with a cleaned-up defense.”
Lumberjacks welcome two new players
The Lumberjacks will return with two brand new faces in the lineup.
They are excited about the addition of goalie Eric Green, who has been playing for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell for the first part of this season. The 6-foot-5, 190-pound sophomore has been a backup in college, and the university wants him to get some game experience in the USHL for the rest of the season, rather than have him sit on the bench.
“Everything comes down to playing games, and both player and university are on board,” Hamilton said. “They want him back next season. They just want him to come and get some games in. We’re excited to see him. We’ve heard some really good things about him.”
The Jacks will also welcome new defenseman Bryan Huggins, an affiliate (which is like a minor league player) who came to Muskegon in the trade with Omaha, and has been playing with the Kenai River Brown Bears of the North American Hockey League this season.
“He’s a right-handed defenseman who has been out (with an injury) for an extended period of time with his NAHL team.” Hamilton said. “He’s going to give us a little more speed and skill along the blue line.”