MUSKEGON, MI – The year 2018 will be fondly remembered by the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
The top team in the United States Hockey League began the 2018-19 campaign with a bang with eight consecutive wins, and Monday finished off the 2018 portion of the schedule with three straight wins thanks to a 2-0 win over Chicago on New Year’s Eve.
The Lumberjacks improved to 23-5-1 behind their defense and goaltender Brandon Bussi, who very well could be tabbed the No. 1 star of 2018 after he garnered his league best 22nd win and sixth shutout.
Bussi turned aside all 28 Steel shots as Muskegon picked up another two points on the Steel, who are still sitting in second in the Eastern Conference.
The Lumberjacks, who didn’t earn a power play all game, killed off three Chicago man advantages to pick up points 46 and 47 and increase their first-place bulge to 14 points.
Egor Afanasyev tallied his team-leading 15th goal of the season 14:14 into the second period, and it was all Muskegon needed to get the win in front of 2,852 fans already ready to party with 2019 minutes away. Colby Bukes stayed hot as he picked up his 18th assist of the season on Afanasyev’s smooth shot.
Reilly Herbst was the hard-luck loser for Chicago (16-11-1). He stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced. It wasn’t enough, however, as Bussi proved to be on top of his game as well.
Nolan Sullivan made sure 2018 ended well with an empty-net goal with 1:11 to play. Brock Bremer and Bobby Lynch each picked up an assist.
Afanasyev was flying all over the ice and led Muskegon with five shots on goal. Bukes, Alex Yakovenko and Lynch all finished +2 for the game.
The Lumberjacks are in really good shape for the top seed in the East once the playoffs arrive. Not only do they have a huge 14-point lead, but they improved to 4-0 against the Steel this season with only two games to play, which means should the Steel come back to tie the Lumberjacks for the top spot in the East the Lumberjacks would get the No. 1 see via head-to-head tiebreaker.
Both teams made a concerted effort to play tight defensively. Chicago outshot Muskegon 9-7 in the opening period before Muskegon roared back with 14 shots in the second period compared to 12 for Chicago.
The third-period shot totals favored Muskegon 8-7, and neither team committed a penalty in the final 20 minutes. Muskegon also blocked a number of shots down the stretch to preserve the lead.
One of the crowd-favorite moments of the night was a big open-ice hit in the middle of the third period.
Another one was, of course, when the game clock struck 0:00 with one hour and 19 minutes left in 2018.
And what a year it was.
For the complete USHL standings, click here.