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Muskegon Lumberjacks thankful for hot start, upcoming home 3-game week

By Scott Brandenburg, 11/20/18, 10:00AM EST

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The Lumberjacks look to continue their torrid pace at home with three games sandwiched around Thanksgiving

MUSKEGON, MI - The Muskegon Lumberjacks have plenty to be thankful for so far this 2018-2019 United States Hockey League season.

The Lumberjacks have only suffered two losses against 13 victories and lead the entire league, including a hefty six-point bulge in the Eastern Conference.

Muskegon hopes to build on its lead this Thanksgiving week with three home games beginning Wednesday against the Team USA U17 squad and concluding with back-to-back tilts against Green Bay Friday and Saturday.

The Lumberjacks are looking forward to every part of it, including the holiday in between all the games.

"We're definitely excited for the three-game set," said Muskegon's first-year head coach Mike Hamilton. "That's what we're here to do, is play hockey, so we're ready to go. We think the three games is manageable and we can't wait to hit the ice.

"The kids are also excited to have family coming in for the three-game set and to see their family for the holiday."

Wednesday's 7:15 p.m. game against Team USA U17 will be the second of the season but first at L.C. Walker Arena. The Lumberjacks downed the U17s 7-2 on Oct. 26 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, MI.

Despite the lopsided score in the previous meeting, Hamilton is expecting a hotly-contested game.

"They obviously play with a lot of pace and a ton of skill," said Hamilton, whose squad won't face the U17s again until late February. "Just like any USA team, you don't want to get in a special teams battle with them. There will be lots of chances and plenty of scoring."

Then after the Lumberjacks enjoy Thanksgiving they will quickly get ready for their first look at Green Bay this season.

The Gamblers have won the Clark Cup four times, the last in 2012. They currently reside in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 17 points, but have picked up their play as of late. They're unbeaten in regulation in their last five games, with three wins, an overtime loss and a shootout loss.

Green Bay is just eighth in scoring out of nine teams in the Eastern Conference, and do not have a standout point producer as yet this year. Gleb Murtazin, Tyler Spott and Nick Leitner all have recorded 11 points to lead Green Bay, and Austin Heidemann and Paul Maust both have 10 points.

Muskegon meanwhile features a pair of 18-point producers in Mikael Hakkarainen and Bobby Lynch, Egor Afanasyev with 17 points and top-scoring defenseman Alex Yakovenko with 16 points.

The Lumberjacks also boast two of the current USHL players of the week, as Yakovenko was tabbed Defenseman of the Week and Bussi earned his second Goalie of the Week.

"Green Bay always does a fantastic job," Hamilton said. "Every aspect is tight. Those games will be a little more locked down and played with a little less pace, but it's never easy to play them."

Gamblers goalie Evan Fear is seventh in the USHL in goals against average at 2.87.

The Lumberjacks are also thankful to almost be back to full strength.

Igor Larionov made his Muskegon debut Saturday, and Hamilton believes there's a good chance the rest of the Lumberjacks will be healthy and ready to go at some point this week.

"We're really close to having our full lineup for the first time this year," he said. "So far guys have used the opportunity to step up to a better line or to put in more minutes, and that's been great, but we're excited to have everyone on board.

"This week it's business as usual. Our goal is to continue to get better every day. We're not talking about where we're at in the standings. Winning is a byproduct of working hard, and we're continuing to work hard and having a lot of fun along the way."

For more stats and info, visit ushl.com