LINCOLN, NEB – On Friday and Saturday the Muskegon Lumberjacks got to see how they measure up against the best the Western Conference has to offer.
Sunday the Lumberjacks faced a new challenge in Lincoln, where they had the opportunity to show their mettle with seemingly everything stacked against them.
The physically and emotionally drained Lumberjacks fell behind the Lincoln Stars 2-0 through one period, but responded in a huge way to get a 6-4 win over the Stars for a 5-point weekend.
“We got off to a really slow start, but it was great to see the guys respond the way they did,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “They found a way to finish it off.
‘We had too good of an effort this weekend not to finish it off today. We found a way to get five of six points, which is fantastic for this kind of road trip.”
The Lumberjacks take back sole possession of the top spot in the Unites States Hockey League with the win. Their 56 points is two better than the 54 for Tri-City, whom the Lumberjacks split with in their weekend series in Kearney (Muskegon won 3-2 Friday and lost 3-2 in OT Saturday).
Muskegon really amped things up after the second intermission with three goals in the 4:40 to take a 5-3 lead.
It proved to be just enough cushion since the Stars responded with a goal at 12:58 on a shot from the point.
The Stars thought they had tied it up when the puck went into the net a short while later, but it turned out a Star player kicked the puck into the net and a after a video review the goal was wiped off the board.
“One of our guys recognized it right away,” Hamilton said. “It was the right call when you were able to watch the replay. It was definitely kicked in.”
Hamilton turned to Brandon Bussi to finish the game from that point anyway for starter Ryan McInchak, who allowed four goals in 25 shots.
Bussi made one stop, but the rest was up to the Lumberjacks defense.
Eventually Alex Yakovenko made a good play with the puck to set up Mikael Hakkarainen, who put the game away with an easy empty-net goal with a shade over a second left in the game.
It was just one of many good plays by Yakovenko on the game and on the weekend. He recorded two goals and an assist and fired seven shots on goal.
“Yak was just a complete stud back on the blue line,” Hamilton said. He logged a large amount of minutes. He was phenomenal.”
Danil Gushchin started the third period uprising with an unassisted goal 42 seconds into the final frame to tie the game at 3-all. Yakovenko gave the Lumberjacks their first lead of the game at the 2:14 mark on an assist from Hakkarainen, and Owen Farris tallied what would prove to be the game-winning goal 2:26 later from Zachary Nazzarett.
Egor Afanasyev started the rally early in the second period. He turned his breakaway from the right side into a cut in front of the goal and a deke got through Lincoln goalie Samuel Hlavaj.
Five minutes later the ‘Jacks caught the Stars up the ice and capitalized on a 4-on-1. Jagger Joshua carried up the left side and had the option to drop to a trailer, but elected to hang on to it until the Lincoln defender laid out on the ice, then sent a perfect pass over to Yakovenko camped out on the right side of the crease, and Yakovenko had no trouble connecting to tie the score.
But just before the period ended Lincoln regained the advantage with a power-play goal. Josh Lopina struck for his second goal of the game when the shot from Justin Lee hit McInchak and rebounded right to Lopina’s stick with just 14 seconds left in the second period.
It proved to be a momentary setback, as Gushchin and company got rolling early in the third period.
“Our depth guys stepped up and gave us big minutes as well,” Hamilton said. “It was a good team effort
“It was a terrible start, but we started to learn from there. That bad start is on us coaches for not getting the guys ready to play.”
Muskegon outshot the hosts 14-5 in the third period to finish with a 34-26 edge for the game.
For the complete USHL standings, click here.