MUSKEGON, MI – Skating with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program’s U18 squad is always challenging, as the Muskegon Lumberjacks know all too well.
Out of the U18’s 13 games in USHL competition this year, they’ve faced the Lumberjacks four times.
Muskegon did manage to defeat the talented squad on Nov. 1, but fell to 1-3 against the U18’s after dropping the final meeting between the teams Saturday at L.C. Walker Arena.
A solid effort from goaltender Brandon Bussi and an excellent second period from the hosts kept the Lumberjacks level for a while, but Team USA pulled away in the end for a 4-1 win.
“Brandon was his normal self,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “He was phenomenal. He’s given us a chance to win in every game. He’s been fabulous.
“Our compete level was good, that’s just a good hockey team. Obviously they have a ton of talent. There’s no disappointment on our end.”
This is the same Team USA squad which boasts four skaters in the top seven-rated prospects, and on Friday destroyed Central Illinois 11-4.
They kept that momentum going in the first period Saturday against Muskegon, which fell to 27-8-2-1 and remains at 57 points.
Trevor Zegras scored on Team USA’s first shot of the game 2:05 into the first period for an early 1-0 lead. His team proceeded to outshoot Muskegon 18-2 in the opening 20 minutes and kept the hosts from recording a shot on net until 15 minutes had elapsed.
The Lumberjacks were dangerous in the final 20 seconds of the period, but trailed 1-0 after the first period thanks to 17 saves from Bussi, who entered the game 1-0-2 in his previous three games with a 1.55 goals against average and a sparkling .955 save percentage.
Muskegon, however, would turn things around in a big way in the second period.
“We had a good second and a good third,” Hamilton said. “We respected them too much early on .We defended well, but we weren’t first to pucks. We came in and made some adjustments, and did a much better job in the second period. It was a great period of hockey for us, but we were still down at the end of it.”
The Lumberjacks fired the first five shots on goal of the period but had nothing to show for it.
Then with 12:02 left the hosts were rewarded for their hard work on a great two-man play by Alex Yakovenko and Mikael Hakkarainen when the sides were skating four players apiece.
Yakovenko made the final pass to Hakkarainen on the doorstep, who buried his shot 5-hole for his 100th career USHL point, on his 21st birthday no less, and a 1-all tie.
A minute later Bussi makes couple of big saves to keep game tied with USA power play pending.
The Lumberjacks killed a 3-minute portion of a major penalty, then Hakkarainen and Gaffney worked together well with 7 minutes left to earn a pair of scoring chances, but USA goalie Spencer Knight showed why he’s considered the top American goalie prospect with a pair of saves.
Team USA finally took the lead for good via their only power play goal of the game in four chances. John Beecher connected with 4:55 left in the 2nd period.
Max Ellis nearly tied it later in the period, but his shot hit the post. Muskegon outshot Team USA 15-11 in the middle 20 minutes.
Team USA eventually picked things back up and outshot the Lumberjacks 17-5 in the final period for a 46-22 bulge for the game. Team USA has averaged over 40 shots on goal the last three games and has never been held under 30 shots in a USHL game.
Domenick Fensore and Zegras connected at 7:11 and 10:28 of the third period, respectively, to put the game out of reach.
The Lumberjacks held Team USA to under its 6.3 goals per game average though.
“They competed well,” Hamilton said. “There’s nothing to hang our heads about.
“Now we just have to figure out how to get back to getting some pucks into the back of the net.”
Muskegon embarks on a two-game road trip next weekend at Sioux City Friday and Waterlook Saturday.
For the complete USHL standings, click here.