MUSKEGON, MI - The Muskegon Lumberjacks continued to show their resiliency Saturday.
Eastern Conference rival Dubuque tested the Lumberjacks thoroughly once again this weekend, and the Lumberjacks answered the bell to avoid their first losing streak of the season.
In its biggest test since playing the Team USA U18 squad twice in a row, Muskegon withstood the tough combo of skill and grit from the Fighting Saints to win 4-3 in overtime in the final game of three straight against the rival.
The difference between the two teams was razor thin on the scoreboard, as the Lumberjacks won tilt one at Dubuque 5-4 last Sunday and Dubuque returned the favor Friday 3-2 before the teams needed extra time to settle things Saturday in front of 3,117 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
Both teams missed golden chances to win in OT before Igor Larionov Jr. cashed in with 42 seconds to play to ensure the Lumberjacks would not start their first losing streak of the season this night.
"If we can avoid (losing back-to-back games) all season long, then we're doing some pretty good things," Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. "I like how we responded to our not having our best day Saturday. The guys dug deep."
In many ways Muskegon played much better than the previous two games against the Fighting Saints. It dominated time with the puck and shots on goal, especially in the first period where it out-shot the guests 23-9.
But through 60 minutes things were still all knotted up at 3-all.
It wasn't until the OT period was almost gone that the Lumberjacks could finally separate themselves from Dubuque.
Larionov took a feed from captain Colby Bukes and skated himself into position for a lethal backhand, which he deposited past Dubuque's growing nemesis in net Matthew Thiessen for the game-winner.
Muskegon, which is now 2-0 in overtime this season, improved to 19-4 overall and grabbed points 37 and 38 to keep control of the Eastern Conference standings.
Despite playing toe-to-toe with the USHL leaders, the Fighting Saints (10-9-2-2) fell to 14 points behind the Lumberjacks with 24 points.
"That's obviously a good hockey team," Hamilton said. "They're well coached and play the game the right way.
"We played a lot better and made some good adjustments. Honestly I think to give away a point is a little unlucky, but we got the win so we'll take it."
Final shots were 40-24 in favor of Muskegon, which is off from action until traveling to Omaha for a pair of games next Friday and Saturday.
The Lumberjacks edged the Fighting Saints 2-1 in shots on goal in overtime as they used the 3-on-3 format to their advantage.
"We've practiced it quite a bit," Hamilton added. "When they work with time and space they're pretty darn good and fun to watch."
It was a big day for Muskegon's three Russian forwards.
Egor Afanasyev earned a point on all three of the hosts' goals in regulation. He scored the first goal of the game 2:51 into the first period and recorded two assists in the third period.
Danil Gushchin scored his seventh and eight goals of the season in the third period to rally the Lumberjacks from a 2-1 deficit through 40 minutes to a 3-2 lead with 8:31 left in regulation.
For the second straight game Dubuque got a breakaway goal from Matias Maccelli. This one tied the game at 1-all with six seconds left in the opening period. Derek Contessa gave the guests a 2-1 lead with the only marker of the second period, and Logal Pietila scored with Thiessen pulled and the extra attacker on the ice with 1:30 to play in regulation.
But Larionov had the answer in OT to give Muskegon and goalie Brandon Bussi (21 saves) their 19th win.
Thiessen, who made 36 saves in the losing effort, actually recorded an assist in the game.
For more stats an info visit ushl.com.