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Showdown set for Saturday between streaking Lumberjacks, strong Team USA 18u squad

By Scott Brandenburg, 10/23/18, 2:00PM EDT

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The unbeaten Lumbejacks welcome a very talented Team USA lineup to L.C. Walker Arena in their next home game

MUSKEGON - The anticipation for Saturday's contest between Team USA's ultra-talented 18u team and the Muskegon Lumberjacks seems to be building with each subsequent Lumberjacks win.

As of yet, no one has been able to stop Muskegon on its season-opening United States Hockey League franchise record win streak, which currently sits at seven straight.

The Lumberjacks first travel to Plymouth to take on the Team USA 17u squad Friday at 7 p.m., however, but are hoping to emerge from that one victorious to go into Saturday's showdown with the 18u squad unscathed and with momentum.

Muskegon is coming off a light weekend of hockey. It won its seventh straight Friday at Chicago by the score of 5-3 in a game it never trailed, then took the rest of the weekend off.

"It was nice to get a little rest and relaxation," Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton said. "It has been a great start, but it was nice for everyone to be able to spend some time with family or do some other things for a couple of days."

The Lumberjacks have used solid depth and goaltending as well as hard work and chemistry to their advantage through the first month of the season.

All the skaters active for a game have played over 10 minutes in that contest, showing everyone is comfortable in each situation.

Hamilton said he's not even comfortable naming a top line, as each line contributes mightily in each game, especially when a supposed "third line" can shut down the opposition's top line.

"It's been a different guy each night," Hamilton said of the recipe for success. "Most of our wins have been true team wins. Our strength is our depth and guys buying into different roles."

Muskegon does not boast a top eight scorer in the USHL, but it has six players between six points and nine points. Egor Afanasyev and Danil Gushchin each have nine points, followed by Bobby Lynch with seven and Jagger Joshua, Mikael Hakkarainen and Alex Yakovenko, the lone defenseman of the group, with six points.

Hamilton said the most recent win over Chicago was the one game where he wasn't entirely happy with the whole team's performance.

Thankfully Muskegon had two of its hottest point producers, Lynch and Hakkarainen, step up.

Lynch, a 20-year-old forward from Flint who has played for Detroit's Honeybaked juniors team, in Quebec and now with the Lumberjacks, is looking quite comfortable on the ice right now after scoring a pair of goals, including the game-winner, on Friday.

"I just capitalized on what I saw," Lynch said of the two goals. "I just drove the net and caught the other team off guard.

"It's been a lot of fun. I didn't know much (about Muskegon) before I got here, but knowing a couple of the guys and the coach has made it an easy adjustment."

Lynch said the philosophy of the Lumberjacks is pretty simple - to be strong and stay tight in the defensive zone and to be creative offensively.

Depth and coachability are also keys.

"I think we've surprised some people with how strong we've started, but I know we have a pretty good group so I'm not surprised at all," Lynch added. "Everyone is open-minded. When coach says something we listen. We play as a team and don't play selfishly at all."

Another of the catalysts to the fast start for the Lumberjacks has been the play of goalie Brandon Bussi.

Bussi was somewhat of an unknown commodity when he arrived in Muskegon.

Everybody knows about him now after he's played every minute of every game for the Lumberjacks and posted seven wins, a sparkling 1.98 goals against average, .927 save percentage, two shutouts and a shootout win.

"I can't say enough about our goaltending," Hamilton said. "We haven't started fast every game, and Brandon's held us in there until we've been able to get going."

Bussi's prowess couldn't have come at a better time for Muskegon.

The Lumberjacks were planning on having both Bussi and Keegan Karki compete for the starting job, but Karki's recovery from an injury has taken longer than expected, and he's still not caught up on training missed during the late summer and preseason.

"As a coaching staff we knew very little about him," Hamilton said of Bussi, who has earned a USHL Goaltender of the Week award. "But he had a great summer, prepared himself very well and has taken advantage of his opportunity."

Bussi, Lynch and company will need everyone to play at their best against a stacked Team USA team Saturday.

The 18u squad features plenty of players with ties to the NHL, including parents and uncles.

Hamilton said they have eight players who have been grouped into NHL Central Scouting 'A', which means they're likely to be selected in the first two rounds of the next NHL draft.

"They're arguably the best team in the USHL," Hamilton said. "They're deep, they have the size to go with it and they play the game the right way."

The 18u squad plays a schedule loaded with opponents in NCAA Division 1. Team USA already boasts wins over No. 3 Notre Dame, Michigan, Harvard and Dartmouth and took elite program Boston University down to the wire.

Hamilton said the Lumberjacks won't completely change what they do, but they will do some tweaking to some things in an effort to slow them down.

"We have to figure out how to take a little bit of skill out of their game," Hamilton said.

Muskegon played the 18u team twice in the preseason and lost 6-3 both times.

But the Lumberjacks are on a roll right now, and are ready for the challenge.