MUSKEGON, MI – While most schools and many businesses close due to the winter storm and extreme cold, the Muskegon Lumberjacks are trying to keep things as close to normal as possible.
That’s because they’ve got one more long, long bus trip to make out west, and it happens to be this weekend.
The Lumberjacks will travel all the way to the west side of Iowa (679 miles, close to 11 hours in good weather) to take on the Sioux City Musketeers on Friday night, then make the 212-mile, 3 and a half hour trek to the east side of Iowa to take on the Waterloo Black Hawks. Both games are at 8:05 p.m. EST.
“We’re trying to stay business as usual,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “It’s the last long road trip until hopefully the playoffs, and at the end of the day they’re two very tough barns to play in with two phenomenal hockey teams.”
Hamilton said playing Sioux City will be a lot like facing Fargo as far as style and personnel.
The Musketeers are in fifth place in the Western Conference with 42 points and are led offensively by Martin Pospisil, who is third in the league in assists with 28. His 40 points is tied for seventh in the USHL with Muskegon’s Egor Afanasyev and Des Moines’ Matt Brown.
The Lumberjacks are hoping they’re catching Sioux City at the right time, as it has struggled to a 2-5-2-1 record over its last 10 games while it tries to figure things out.
Muskegon is figuring things out as well though, as it has just 24 goals in nine games since the calendar flipped to 2019, or 2.66 goals per game.
“I think we just have to look in the mirror,” Hamilton said. “The same guys who were scoring earlier are the same ones in the lineup now. It’s not for a lack of effort or opportunity, I think it’s just one of those phases. It could be teams are playing us tighter defensively or we’re just not hitting our spots and getting enough traffic in front of the net.”
The Lumberjacks are 0-1-0-1 in their last two games and 5-3-1-1 in their last 10 games. Their 57 points is eight points in front of Chicago in the Eastern Conference, as Chicago is on a tear with a seven-game winning streak.
Tri-City, whom Muskegon split with a couple of weekends ago, has won four in a row and now has 60 points to lead the USHL but Muskegon has one game in hand.
“I think the guys are fine – there’s zero panic around here,” Hamilton said. “Since Christmas people give the sense that things are not going well, but we’re still on the winning side of things and are doing a lot of good things. We’ve had lots of travel and lots of tough opponents and we’ve been competing just fine.
“The only two disappointments we’ve had are the first period against Fargo and the first period against Lincoln.”
The Lumberjacks’ recent trend of facing USHL players of the week will remain intact this week, as one of them plays for their Saturday opponent, Waterloo.
The reigning Goaltender of the Week is Logan Stein, who went 2-0 with a 1.08 goals against average and .958 save percentage last weekend.
The Black Hawks are third in the USHL with 52 points. They’ve won five straight and sit at 24-10-3-1 overall.
The biggest adjustment for playing Waterloo will be the bigger ice surface.
“The bigger sheet will certainly open things up,” Hamilton said. “All we’re focused on on a daily basis is playing our best. If we keep playing the game the right way the wins will keep coming. We were having more success when we were scoring more, so if we get rolling again we can anticipate more success.”
The Lumberjacks hope to make the 470 mile and close to eight-hour drive home on a high note with four points in tow.