MUSKEGON, MI – A huge first period Friday ensured the Muskegon Lumberjacks still have not lost back-to-back games in regulation 41 games into the 2018-19 season.
The Lumberjacks showed the 3,087 fans at L.C. Walker Arena they were happy to be back home after their lengthy trip through Iowa a week ago by scoring three goals in the opening period against visiting Central Illinois.
Muskegon then had to hold on as the Flying Aces rallied with a pair of third-period goals. The hosts were able to fend off the Flying Aces in the last 3:03 of the game to win 4-3 for their 29th win of the season.
“It was another good team win across the board,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “It was a good first period. Really, the only difference between our first period and third period is we actually finished our chances in the first period. It was good to see the guys finish their chances and play good puck possession.”
The Lumberjacks increased their point total to 61 and stayed one point behind Tri-City in the race for the Anderson Cup. The Lumberjacks also increased their bulge over second-place Chicago to 10 points in the Eastern Conference thanks to Sioux Falls’ 8-6 win over the Steel Friday.
The only thing Muskegon was concerned about, though, was getting the home win.
“It’s too early; there’s too many games left to worry about what other teams are doing,” Hamilton said. “All we can control is how hard we’re playing and making sure we’re constantly improving.”
It was good for Hamilton and company to see forward Bobby Lynch bury a breakaway shot early in the second period.
Lynch had gone scoreless in eight games but picked up his 15th goal and 40th point of the season to reestablish the host’s 3-goal lead. His goal came just 23 seconds after Trevor Janicke put the Flying Aces on the board on the power play at 2:05.
The game was also huge for Lumberjacks defenseman Alex Yakovenko.
The 20-year-old Muskegon defenseman had a hand in all four of his team’s points, including a power play goal 9:13 into the first period.
The goal moved him into a tie with Michael Brodzinski for goals in a season as a Lumberjack for a defenseman with 16. It also ties him with Christian Wolanin for 19 career goals by a ‘Jacks defenseman.
Yakovenko then started helping others score. He drew the secondary assist on Egor Afanasyev’s goal a little more than a minute later and added a secondary assist on Danil Gushchin’s goal at the 18:49 mark.
Yako’s stretch pass also set up Lynch for his goal, and the point was his 41st of the season, tying Wolanin’s single-season Muskegon mark for a defenseman.
“Yako was Yako,” Hamilton said. “He’s got an amazing ability of finding ways to get the puck through, and a knack for sending it up in the right spot on the rush.”
Newcomer Andrej Kollar picked up his first two USHL assists with the primary helpers on Afanasyev’s goal and Gushchin’s goal.
Hamilton credited Kollar, Ryan Savage and Max Ellis for stepping up and getting comfortable with their roles on the ice Friday.
Central Illinois’ Tyler Gratton scored a goal at 3:08 of the final period and then another goal with 3:03 left in regulation to make things interesting.
The Flying Aces, who are just outside of the top six and the playoffs in the East, fought desperately to get at least a point, and the game wasn’t over until Ellis knocked the puck out to the neutral zone with seconds to play.
“Obviously we could have closed it out cleaner at the end,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got to find ways to stay out of the penalty box. We’re at our best when we’re rolling our four lines and grinding teams down, and we can’t do that if we don’t play disciplined.”
Muskegon killed off four of five Central Illinois power plays and went 1-for-3 on its own man advantages. Muskegon also outshot the guests 34-25.
Lumberjacks goalie Brandon Bussi made 22 saves for his 25th win of the season.
Muskegon gets right back on the ice Saturday night at 7:15 p.m. against these same Flying Aces.
For the complete USHL standings, click here.