KEARNEY, NEB – Muskegon won Round 1 of the best vs. best showdown this weekend at the Viaero Center.
The Lumberjacks invaded Nebraska for a pair of games with the Storm Friday and Saturday, and the visitors drew first blood with a 3-2 win Friday night in Kearney to retake the United States Hockey League in the overall standings with 53 points.
Muskegon, the leaders of the Eastern Conference, kept the Western Conference-leading Storm off the scoreboard for the first 51 minutes but had to hold on late to secure the win.
Tri-City scored a goal with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker with 1:25 to play in regulation and threatened to tie the game with a couple more good scoring chances but could not convert to send it to overtime.
“It was a great game,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “We played really well. We were sound defensively, and we followed the game plan perfectly today. I couldn’t be prouder of the guys.”
Round 2 between Muskegon and Tri-City is Saturday night with puck drop at 8:05 p.m. EST. Muskegon will look to increase its USHL lead while Tri-City will attempt to go back on top.
The Lumberjacks methodically built a 3-0 lead through 40 minutes, outshooting the hosts 12-9 in the first period and 9-8 in the second period.
Cam McDonald gave Muskegon a 1-0 lead midway through the first period on an unassisted goal.
The Lumberjacks increased their advantage to 2-0 early in the second period. Alex Gaffney scored his ninth of the season from Owen Farris 3:43 into the second stanza. They maintained that lead until the final minute of the second, when Alex Yakovenko found the net for his 11th of the season from Egor Afanasyev.
Yakovenko was named the No. 1 star of the game.
Muskegon’s Brandon Bussi won the matchup of top USHL goalies for the night, as he made 29 saves to get the win.
Tri-City’s Isaiah Saville wasn’t tested much late in the game but had to be sharp early to keep his team in the game. He made 20 saves, but only faced two shots in the third period.
The Storm outshot the Lumberjacks 14-2 in the final 20 minutes as they made an emphatic push to force OT.
“We played a solid, solid, solid game until about seven minutes left,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got to learn to close games a little bit cleaner, but the guys battled hard and were rewarded with the ‘W’.”
Muskegon played a pretty disciplined game, and even an early power play for Tri-City in the third period did not bother the guests.
But then the Lumberjacks allowed a little too much time to Zac Jones in Gretzky’s office, and he found Brendan Budy alone in front and he buried the shot to make it 3-1 and change the complexion of the game.
Saville was pulled with around three minutes left to play, and the Storm kept pushing until they earned an offensive zone faceoff to Bussi’s right. After a Muskegon timeout Budy won the draw cleanly, and Bussi stopped the slapshot from the point but Connor McMenamin buried the rebound to make it 3-2 with 1:25 to play.
McMenamin nearly converted from close range shortly thereafter but Bussi beat him and the puck was cleared.
The Lumberjacks went 0-for-3 on the power play and the Storm went 0-for-4.
“At the end of the day we followed the game plan,” Hamilton said. “I thought our penalty kill was fantastic, and I thought our power play was really good too. How we didn’t score on two of our three chances I don’t know.”
For the complete USHL standings, click here.