MUSKEGON, MI- The Muskegon Lumberjacks broke a franchise record this season, winning seven straight games from December 9th to January 5th. It was a memorable stretch, but since the Jacks ripped off seven in a row, they haven’t won more than three straight.
This weekend, Muskegon hits the road for two games against the Central Illinois Flying Aces, hoping to build a winning streak as the Clark Cup playoffs draw near.
The Lumberjacks are already winners of two straight, and they have a favorable schedule from here on out, starting with these two matchups against the last-place Aces.
The rebuild has already begun in Mike Watt’s first year at the helm, and Central Illinois has moved several key pieces as they look to the future. The Aces now have four picks in the first round of the 2018 Phase II draft, meaning they’re a team to keep an eye on next season. This season, however, will not end with a bid to the playoffs for Central Illinois.
The Aces own a 12-32-5 record on the year, and have lost 15 consecutive games. Now, their role is that of the spoiler, playing not only to improve for next season, but also spoil the playoff hopes of their rivals.
There is no team the Aces would rather knock down a peg than Muskegon; the Jacks have beaten them nine consecutive times, a streak that dates back to the 2015-16 season.
Calen Kiefiuk and Max Andreev lead the Aces’ offense that has stalled of late. During their 15-game slide, Central Illinois has only scored 1.73 goals per game, while allowing 4.87. But, Kiefiuk and Andreev have each reached the 30-point plateau and are dangerous offensive weapons. Jakub Lacka is the third Ace the Jacks must defend well- he leads Central Illinois with 15 goals.
Muskegon, of course, will continue to rely upon the Del Gaizo brothers for both offense and defense. Anthony leads the USHL with 33 goals and Marc is the league’s leading goalscorer from the blue line (nine goals).
Mikael Hakkarainen has been the hottest Jack in March, scoring points in each of his last five games. The Finnish forward has registered three goals and four assists in that span.
Bray Crowder could also return to Muskegon’s top defensive pair alongside Del Gaizo. Crowder missed all three games last weekend, but has returned to practice and it is possible he returns to the Jacks’ lineup in this road series.
Muskegon will play eight of the regular season’s final 13 games on the road, but the good news is that the Jacks only have five games against teams currently in a playoff spot, the fewest of any team. Only three points separate Muskegon from a first-round bye, and that is no doubt the goal for the remainder of the regular season.
In order achieve that, the Jacks will have to string some wins together, and now seems like just the time to do so.