DUBUQUE, IA- The Muskegon Lumberjacks have put together six consecutive wins, and have an opportunity to break a franchise record with a seventh straight victory this weekend in Dubuque.
Muskegon will face the Fighting Saints for a weekend pair this Friday and Saturday, and a shot at the record book won’t be the only motivation the Lumberjacks have. Last season, it was Dubuque that knocked Muskegon out of the playoffs, ending the Jacks’ season.
The Lumberjacks certainly haven’t forgotten about that loss in game four of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and some of the key players from that series are back for the 3rd-place Saints.
Quinn Preston returns at forward for Dubuque, and the 20-year-old was a major thorn in Muskegon’s side last season. Preston scored twice and added an assist in the playoff series against Muskegon, and has been putting the puck in the net with regularity again this season (ten goals).
Forward Cole Guttman is also back for his second USHL season, but the USHL’s leading returning scorer (54 points in ‘16-’17) will not suit up this weekend due to injury. Guttman is one of the league’s elite players, but Dubuque hasn’t plummeted in his absence. The FIghting Saints are 4-2-1 without Guttman in the lineup.
Goaltender Jaxon Castor played every minute of the playoffs last year, and returns for his third USHL season. Castor posted strong numbers a year ago, but has gotten off to a rocky start in 2017-18, posting a 3.02 GAA and .891 SV%.
He will be opposed by Lumberjack goaltender Keegan Karki, who has started the last ten games for coach John LaFontaine. In the last eight games, Karki has a goals against average of just 2.13, and a save percentage of .921.
During the Lumberjacks’ six-game streak, they have had 12 different players score at least one goal. It’s been a total team effort, with Wyatt Bongiovanni (4G-5A-9P), Mikael Hakkarainen (4G-4A-8P), Emilio Pettersen (5G-3A-8P), Anthony Del Gaizo (4G-3A-7P) and Colby Bukes (1G-6A-7P) spearheading the Muskegon attack.
A look at the standings, one thing is easily apparent: the Eastern Conference is as tight as it gets. Just three points separate sixth-place Cedar Rapids (26) from second-place Chicago (29), with Green Bay atop the conference with 33 points.
Muskegon shot up the standings during the month of December, climbing from ninth to fifth. The USHL’s longest active winning streak has put Muskegon right back in the thick of things, and this trip to Dubuque (12-8-4, 28 points) offers Muskegon (12-11-2, 26 points) a chance to climb even higher, and leapfrog Dubuque in the process.
Regardless of how hot the Jacks are, it won’t be an easy pair against the Saints, who have picked up right where they left off under first-year head coach Oliver David. Dubuque has made the playoffs seven consecutive years, the longest streak in the league, and fins themselves right back in a playoff spot this season.
The flow of these games may indicate the winners. Muskegon prefers to play an fast-paced, open game: Muskegon ranks 5th in goals scored (77) and 10th in goals allowed (80). Dubuque would prefer to play a game with less scoring: the Saints rank 12th in the USHL with 69 goals scored and boast a strong defense that has conceded only 68 goals (6th in the USHL).
Both games begin at 8:05pm EST, and will be carried live on 92.5 Nash Icon and HockeyTV.com. Fans can also listen live on the Muskegon Lumberjacks FREE mobile app.