MUSKEGON, MI- The Green Bay Gamblers may hold the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but it’s still anyone’s conference to win.
The Muskegon Lumberjacks will host the Gamblers this weekend for two important games amid a wild Eastern Conference race. Muskegon will begin the weekend in fifth place, but could finish it in second.
With just two points separating second-place Dubuque from sixth-place Cedar Rapids, each game has meaning as the 2017-’18 USHL season nears the halfway point.
Muskegon’s franchise-record seven-game win streak came to an abrupt halt last Saturday in Dubuque, and the sting from the 4-3 loss that was decided in the final seconds will linger with the Lumberjacks.
Even though the streak is over, Muskegon is still among the hottest teams in the USHL, having won 9 of their last 12 games. Green Bay has been just as good, winning eight of their last ten. The Gamblers have ripped off four in a row, and have points in each of their last seven games. The last time Green Bay fell in regulation? December 9th against Muskegon.
The two hottest teams in the East will clash this weekend at L.C. Walker Arena, and they might be more similar than they are different.
Both teams have good size, with Green Bay’s top trio of Josh Dunne, Nolan Moyle and Trenton Bliss averaging 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds. Bliss has racked up 28 points this season, just one point behind the league leaders. He’s been especially hot lately, scoring multi-point games in four of Green Bay’s last six.
However, Bliss was noticeably quiet the last time these two teams got together, failing to record a point during the weekend doubleheader in Green Bay. If Muskegon can again limit Bliss, things may turn in their favor.
Both teams will also rely on their goaltending. Green Bay’s Maksim Zhukov, a Vegas Golden Knights prospect, leads the USHL with 15 wins, and has played more games in net (24) than any other goalie in the league.
Muskegon’s Keegan Karki has been an ironman in his own right, starting the last 12 games consecutively. He was in net for each of the Lumberjacks’ seven-straight wins. During Muskegon’s win streak, Karki’s GAA was only 2.13, while his save percentage was .920.
What stands out about Green Bay is their home/away splits. As expected with a first-place team, the Gamblers do a great job of protecting home ice. They’ve gone 12-2-1 at the Resch Center this season, making them the best home team in the USHL by a fair margin (Tri-City has gone 10-4-0 at home). But on the road, Green Bay has stumbled to a 4-7-2 record. Away from home, Green Bay has been outscored 32-48, and that -16 goal differential is the 2nd-worst in the USHL.
Meanwhile, Muskegon has won four consecutive games in front of their home crowd, and have gone 7-5-2 at home overall.
Keep your eyes on Emilio Pettersen, who has been a catalyst for Muskegon. The Norwegian forward has scored at least a point in each of his last seven games, including five goals. With Wyatt Bongiovanni out 4-6 weeks with a shoulder injury, Pettersen becomes an integral piece on the Lumberjacks’ second line.
Should Muskegon capitalize on home ice and earn two regulation victories over the 1st-place Gamblers, they would find themselves within three points of first place in the Eastern Conference.
The key to home ice advantage is the fans! Tickets for both Friday and Saturday night’s games are on sale now. Stop by the L.C. Walker Arena box office, call 231-726-2400, or buy online at muskegonlumberjacks.com
Saturday night is Star Wars night! Come see all your favorite Star Wars characters and take photos with them!