MUSKEGON, MI- 27 down, 27 to go.
The Muskegon Lumberjacks have completed the first half of the 2020-2021 season, and despite a heap of adversity, the Jacks own a 16-9-2 record and sit in second place in the Eastern Conference.
Christophe Fillion enrolled early at Quinnipiac. John Farinacci left the team to train in Florida. Hank Kempf missed 19 games with an injury. Luke Krys is now injured, and his season may be done.
The Lumberjacks had to endure a franchise-record ten-game road trip to begin the season, but have turned that struggle into a strength, winning nine road games in the first half of the season to tie the league lead.
There have been challenges, but despite all of this, Muskegon has continued to win. They’ve beaten the league’s best team, the Chicago Steel, four times; and are the only team in the USHL to have a winning record (4-2-0) against them.
The Jacks have watched two defensemen go down with serious injuries, but also seen rookie Jacob Guevin explode onto the USHL scene and become one of Muskegon’s best blueliners.
Sure, losing Farinacci and Fillion was tough, but forwards like Quinn Hutson, Nick Portz, Brad Marek and Tanner Kelly have stepped up in big ways to fill the void.
Muskegon’s veterans have led the way through a tumultuous half year, and while we have come to expect outstanding things from Danil Gushchin, he has still dazzled (albeit limited) crowds with his exceptional talent.
Cam Berg nearly tied a franchise record, scoring at least a point in 12 straight games, and remains in the thick of the USHL goal-scoring race. Dylan Wendt hasn’t scored a boatload of goals, but every one he’s scored has seemingly been in a big moment for his team. Jack Williams would be in the running for the USHL’s Selke Trophy if they awarded one. John Druskinis remains ready to run anyone through the glass on any given night. Alex Gagne ranks second in the USHL with an incredible +22 rating.
The pieces are there for Muskegon to make a long run in the postseason. President of Hockey Operations Steve Lowe has added big pieces like Portz, and more recently, defenseman Kyle Aucoin, letting the USHL know that this team believes they are good enough to win the Clark Cup this year.
But, as Babe Ruth once said, “the way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”
On paper, this weekend’s games (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) don’t stand out. It’s a three-game set against Green Bay that nobody will likely point to at the end of the season and select it as the weekend that Muskegon cemented themselves as contenders. But Muskegon is halfway through the season. They have climbed to the peak and now begin the descent.
With the trade deadline fast approaching, the locker room isn’t changing much, if at all. The players in Muskegon now are the same ones that Head Coach Mike Hamilton will have at his disposal in April; and April is when the Jacks hope to be playing their best.
They have the entire second half of the season to get there, but the second half of the season begins this weekend against a Green Bay team that may trail Muskegon in the standings, but has a better winning percentage than the Jacks do. The Gamblers were swept by Chicago last weekend, and I doubt they’re happy about it.
When things got chippy against Green Bay in the last series between these two teams, the Jacks were able to play together and come away with a pair of wins in those two games. With three games in a row between these two teams this weekend, expect the intensity to be very apparent right off the bat.
There are still 27 games to go, but these three begin the back half of the year for the Lumberjacks, and things are starting to feel a little different.
All three games are scheduled for 7:00pm at Mercy Health Arena and limited tickets are available. All three games will be aired on the Lumberjacks Broadcast Network.