MUSKEGON, MI- It came down to the final game of the 2017-18 regular season, but the Muskegon Lumberjacks finally know their opponent for the first-round, best-of-three series in the Clark Cup playoffs.
The defending champion Chicago Steel will make the trip to LC Walker Arena to face the third-seeded Lumberjacks in the three-game series that begins Monday at 7:15pm.
Chicago needed a point in Saturday’s regular-season finale to get in the playoffs, and got it by defeating the Central Illinois Flying Aces 2-1 in a shootout.
Muskegon, meanwhile, clinched the three seed with a win on Friday, and locked up home ice by winning back on April 7th. The Jacks had the luxury of resting several key players during their regular-season finale against Youngstown, while Chicago needed all hands on deck.
Now, the Steel will have to travel for the first round, and because of the expanded playoffs this year (six teams per conference vs four last season), all three games will be hosted by Muskegon.
Here is the schedule:
Game one: Monday, 7:15pm
Game two: Tuesday, 7:15pm
Game three (if necessary): Wednesday, 7:15pm
This season, Muskegon and Chicago dueled seven times, with Muskegon winning five of those seven.
The defending champs rely on their offensive superiority to win games. Chicago boasts the USHL’s second-best offense, scoring 3.69 goals per game.
The Steel have gotten their starting goaltender, Oskar Autio, back from an injury and are playing good hockey, with a 5-3-2 record over their last ten.
Chicago’s high-flying offense has been somewhat grounded by the Lumberjacks’ defense, with Muskegon holding Chicago to 3.00 goals per game, and three goals or fewer in five of the seven matchups.
Muskegon’s offense, on the other hand, has done well against Chicago’s 15th-ranked defense, totaling 3.7 goals per game during the regular-season series. The Jacks have scored three or more goals five times against the Steel this year.
Both Chicago and Muskegon boast potent top lines. Headlined by the USHL scoring champion, Anthony Del Gaizo, the Lumberjacks’ top six is chocked full of weapons. Del Gaizo, who became the fifth USHL player since 2002 to score 40 goals in a season, scored five of his 40 against the Steel, adding a pair of assists in seven games played. Younger brother Marc Del Gaizo, a defenseman, was also stellar against Chicago, scoring five goals and adding two assists of his own.
Mikael Hakkarainen, Anthony’s linemate, recorded a whopping eight points in six games against the Steel, who traded him to Muskegon in December of 2016.
Chicago also has a potent group of offensive weapons, led by Vegas Golden Knights prospect Jack Dugan, who racked up 66 points this season, good for third in the USHL. Dugan was dynamite in five games against the Jacks, notching a pair of goals and six points.
Baker Shore, often playing alongside Dugan, is another skater Muskegon must key on. Shore scored four times in the season series, and registered three multi-point games. Shore’s 48 points on the season ranked third on the team, and top 20 in the USHL.
As it so often does, goaltending can be the difference between a deep playoff run and an early plane ticket home. Of the goaltenders that have appeared in this series, Muskegon’s Keegan Karki has the best numbers. Karki faced Chicago six times, earning a 4-1-0 record, .898 save percentage, and 2.86 goals against average.
Both teams have a top-level power play, as you may expect with the names mentioned above. Muskegon’s unit ranks 4th in the league while Chicago is close behind, checking in at 5th in the USHL. The catalysts have been a pair of USHL Defenseman of the Year candidates, Graham Lillibridge and Marc Del Gaizo.
Chicago’s Lillibridge led all USHL defensemen with 45 points this year, and distributes the puck with great poise on the power play. Del Gaizo led USHL d-men in goals with 12 on the year, and can put the puck in the net on the power play, something he’s done a league-best six times this season.
Tickets are now on sale for games one and two at the LC Walker Arena box office or over the phone at 231-726-2400. Playoff broadcasts can be heard on Muskegon’s flagship station, 92.5 Nash Icon, as well as HockeyTV.com.