MUSKEGON, MI- With only three games left in the regular season, things are far from over in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. The Chicago Steel have locked up the top seed in the East, but after that, everything is up for grabs.
For the Muskegon Lumberjacks, that means home ice advantage in the first-round of the Clark Cup Playoffs.
This season, the USHL made the decision to shrink the playoff field to just eight teams, as well as shorten the playoff series to three games until the Clark Cup Finals. The first round, or the Conference Semifinals, will be three-game series all played at the better seed’s arena. With that in mind, the Jacks have plenty of motivation to clinch the number two seed in the East and host the Conference Semifinal in Muskegon.
The bad news for Muskegon is that they face a tough three-game weekend on the road, facing Dubuque and then Chicago. The good news is that the Jacks need to come away with just one win (two points) in order to clinch the number two seed.
“We need to continue doing what we’ve been doing,” said Head Coach Mike Hamilton. “Our record over the last 20 games is pretty dang good, so we need to keep doing what we’re doing. This is a good test for us to go out, get a win, and earn home ice advantage.”
So while the road trip to face Dubuque and then Chicago twice may look daunting, the Jacks know exactly what they have to accomplish in order to host a first-round playoff series.
Muskegon is coming off a three-point weekend in Youngstown, and the road hasn’t been an issue for the Jacks all season. Muskegon boasts a 16-6-2 record away from Mercy Health Arena, the best winning percentage of any USHL road team.
The Jacks are playing their best hockey down the stretch, having won 17 of their last 21 games. Muskegon has a pair of hot goaltenders in Nate Reid and Jan Skorpik, who have each caught their stride at the right time. Reid had won five in a row until a nail-biting, 3-2 loss to Dubuque on April 10th, and Skorpik posted back-to-back shutouts on April 9 and 16. Skorpik is now 6-0-1 in his last eight starts.
Offensively, the Jacks’ depth has been astounding of late. In Friday’s 6-0 win over Youngstown, six different players scored a goal and 16 recorded at least one point. Philip Tresca and the Jacks’ fourth line have been stellar lately, and Tresca has scored four goals in the last seven games. Owen Mehlenbacher has chipped in a goal and three assists in that timeframe, while Tom Sinclair has rounded out the line with a goal and four helpers.
Muskegon has six players with 40 or more points, something no other team in the USHL can say. In fact, the Jacks have a 50+ point player on each of their top three lines in Danil Gushchin, Cameron Berg, and Cristophe Tellier.
This grueling season has already featured 11 three-game weeks for Muskegon, with one still to go. When legs get tired late in the season, having the depth that the Lumberjacks do is a great strength.
“[Our depth] has been something we’ve talked about all year,” said Hamilton. “We are very tough to match up against. We’ve got five lines of forwards and four lines of defensemen that are good enough to play every night in this league. We make it very tough for other teams to match up against us.”
Muskegon kicks off the final weekend of their regular season Thursday night in Dubuque with puck drop scheduled for 8:05 pm. Friday and Saturday’s games in Chicago will begin at 8:05 pm as well. All three games can be viewed on HockeyTV.com. Playoff tickets are available online at www.muskegonlumberjacks.com/tickets or call (231) 726-2400 #GETJACKD