By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON - To get anywhere against Dubuque’s dominant defense, opponents have to keep digging and digging.
That’s exactly what the Muskegon Lumberjacks did on Saturday, and came away with something to show for their effort.
The Jacks actually lost the game to the second-place Fighting Saints 3-2, in front of 2,611 fans at Mercy Health Arena. But they forced the game to overtime to earn a point in the standings. Combined with Friday night’s victory, they collected three of four possible points in the standings and had the best weekend they’ve had in some time.
The way the Jacks managed to earn that point was impressive. That’s because Dubuque has by far the best defense in the USHL. Going into Saturday, the Fighting Saints had only surrendered 103 goals on the season, for a stingy average of 2.45 goals per game.
It showed against Muskegon, which only managed seven shots on goal by the midway point of the game.
But the Jacks’ offense picked up the pace in the third period, and finally got the game-tying goal from Tanner Kelly at the 3:34 mark. The Muskegon defense also played tough, forcing the game to the extra session.
Dubuque’s Antonio Venuto scored the game-winning with just 15.6 seconds left in overtime, breaking his team’s three-game losing streak.
Muskegon is now 19-21-5 on the season and still in sixth place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference standings. The Jacks will return to action next Friday at home against the Fargo Force at 7:05 p.m.
“We will take three of four points anytime against the second-place team in the league,” said Muskegon Coach Mike Hamilton, whose team beat Dubuque 4-3 on Friday. “The whole weekend was a huge one for us. You want to win hockey games, but we will take this one and I can live with the result. We dug deep and I think we proved a lot to ourselves about what we can do when we play together and follow our structure.”
Christophe Fillion gave the Lumberjacks a 1-0 lead with a power play goal at 13:55 of the first period. It was his 12th tally of the season.
Dubuque tied things up at 19:14 of the first period with a goal from Stephen Halliday.
The Lumberjacks were lucky to come away with a tie at the first break, since they were outshot 11-4.
Dubuque’s Riese Gaber scored the only goal of the second period at the 14:11 mark, and the Fighting Saints led 2-1 heading into the third.
Kelly’s scored the tying goal by following a play in front of the Dubuque goal and popping a rebound past Fighting Saints goalie Erik Portillo. It was his third goal of the season.
The game nearly went to a shootout. The teams played scoreless through most of the five-minute overtime period, but Venuto settled the issue with a goal on a hard shot from just inside the Muskegon blue line with only 15 seconds left on the clock.
“In the third period we played really well,” Hamilton said. “We knew that it was going to be at our advantage because it was their third game of the weekend and it showed, because we had better legs. We got pucks in and got behind their defense and really pushed, but couldn’t find that winner when we had them.”
Dubuque outshot Muskegon 30-23. Lumberjacks goalie Jonathon Williams performed well, but took the hard-luck loss.