MUSKEGON, MI - The Muskegon Lumberjacks are definitely in for a long weekend, at least physically.
Muskegon has played plenty of back-to-backs already this season, but this weekend's back-to-back-to-back will pose a new challenge.
The Lumberjacks, fresh off a week where they went 2-0 in a Thursday-Saturday schedule, will play consecutive home games Friday and Saturday against Youngstown, then pack up and drive down to Bloomington, Ill. for their first game against Central Illinois on Sunday.
"We're figuring out where we're at as far as healthy bodies," said Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton, whose team is tops in the USHL with a 10-1 record and 20 points. "Three games will be taxing on all our boys, and we've adjusted our schedule this week accordingly."
Both home games this weekend start at 7:15 p.m.
Muskegon is looking for help from one or two of its affiliate players this weekend.
The 'Jacks already have Tanner Kelly, an elite prospect with experience on the Little Caesars' travel teams, coming in to practice beginning Wednesday to prepare to play in perhaps a couple of games.
They may need another affiliate, depending on the health of a couple of Lumberjacks. Regular Jagger Joshua has been dinged up, and his status for this weekend will also be determined Wednesday, while affiliate goalie Cullen DeYoung may need to be called upon again (he served as the backup against Chicago Saturday) if Keegan Karki, who tweaked his knee in practice last week, isn't ready to go.
No matter who's healthy and in the lineup, Hamilton said their focus is 100 percent on Youngstown, a team Muskegon is 3-0 against so far this season.
"We completely respect them," Hamilton said of the Phantoms. "In two of the three games they should have beaten us."
Youngstown (4-6-0-2) is actually one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Phantoms are unbeaten in regulation in their last four games. They took two of three games from Central Illinois over the weekend, with the only loss coming in a shootout.
Muskegon's wins over Youngstown have been by scores of 2-1, 3-0 and 5-4.
Once the Lumberjacks complete action Saturday night, they'll jump on the bus to Bloomington. Hamilton expects they'll arrive at 3 a.m. to drop off their equipment, then head for much-needed rest before prepping for Sunday's 4 p.m. contest.
The Central Illinois Flying Aces are 7-5-1-0 and in second place in the Eastern Conference with 15 points.
The Flying Aces are led by Trevor Janicke, who is eighth in the USHL with 15 points. Teammate Lynden Breen has 13 points, tied with Muskegon leaders Bobby Lynch and Mikael Hakkarainen.
"This is a really important week for us to stay on track," Hamilton added. "We play a couple of teams with differing styles. Central Illinois is a more skilled and puck-possession team, and Youngstown is more defensive and sits back and finishes their checks more.
"It's a challenging weekend, but we feel we can play numerous styles with the guys we have in this locker room."