MUSKEGON, MI – The showdown is finally here.
For most of this season the Muskegon Lumberjacks have tested themselves against the best the Eastern Conference has to offer.
Now it’s time to take on the best the Western Conference has to offer, in the form of the Tri-City Storm.
The Lumberjacks, who are tops in the East with 51 points, make the 13-hour, 817-mile trek to Kearney, Nebraska to take on the Storm, tops in the West with 52 points, this weekend for a pair of pivotal games Friday and Saturday night. Both games are at 8:05 p.m. EST.
Muskegon will also take on the Lincoln Stars this weekend in Lincoln at the Ice Box on Sunday afternoon at 3:05 p.m. EST.
But first, the showdown.
“It’s obviously a long trip, but we’re excited to see how we fare against the West,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “We’ll start out with the top team right away and see how we stack up.”
While the Storm have the most points, the Lumberjacks still have the best winning percentage (.773-.765). The Storm have played one more game than the Lumberjacks, and the extra one point is the result of a shootout loss. Otherwise their records are identical, with 25 wins, seven losses and an overtime loss.
For Tri-City, the back-to-back games against Muskegon are the only two games of its weekend, whereas Muskegon has the third game at Lincoln.
The Lumberjacks are coming off a home split with a loss to Youngstown and a win over Central Illinois. The Storm are coming off a 2-1 weekend in which they swept a pair from Waterloo but lost to Omaha on Sunday.
The Storm can play some pretty mean defense. Their 76 goals allowed are the best mark in the USHL. The Lumberjacks are second in the league with 83 goals allowed.
Muskegon, though, has scored the most goals of the season by far, with 141, compared to Tri-City’s 117, which is fifth in the league.
The Storm though have all three reigning USHL Players of the Week. They earned the hat trick when forward Brendan Furry, defenseman Ronnie Attard and goaltender Isaiah Saville were all named players of the week at their respective positions Monday.
The trick for the Lumberjacks is to combine skill with hard-nosed hockey without committing too many penalties. That has been tricky for them lately as they’ve given the opposition more power plays than they’ve earned in four of five games, and the fifth game was a tie.
“These games will give us a chance to see what areas we have to address,” Hamilton said. “It’s a long, tough month.
“We have to make sure we clean up some things and play more disciplined, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve been losing our composure a little bit. We want to play with a little more grit but not at the expense of taking extra penalties.”
The East-West showdown will also feature a duel between the top two goaltenders in the USHL.
Saville has perched atop many of the goalie stats all season and currently leads in goals against average (1.64) and save percentage (.939) with a record of 16-2-1-1 and four shutouts. Bussi leads the league in wins (23) and shutouts (six) to go along with a 2.28 goals against average and .919 save percentage.
The Lumberjacks have also been buoyed by the recent emergence of goalie Ryan McInchak.
You can bet the Viaero Center will be boisterous as the Storm welcome the Lumberjacks, who have been the top points team in the league for 95 percent of the season until the Storm recently overtook them.
The last time Muskegon went on a three games in three days road trip it went 3-0, but this time that mark will be a challenge.
“If we can go out there and go 2-1 we’ll return with smiles on our faces,” Hamilton said. “But we are looking to compete as hard as we can and win as many games as we can.”