MUSKEGON, MI – The Muskegon Lumberjacks haven’t played at home in back-to-back weekends since November.
They’re looking forward to ending that streak, of sorts, this weekend.
After sweeping a pair of games from Central Illinois in the friendly confines of L.C. Walker Arena this past weekend, Muskegon hosts Western Conference power Sioux Falls this Saturday and Sunday.
But Muskegon can’t look ahead to that thrilling matchup just yet, however. First, the Lumberjacks must turn their attention to Eastern Conference rival Chicago.
The Lumberjacks kick off their tough three-game weekend by traveling to the Windy City to take on the second place Steel, who are still hoping to catch the front-running Lumberjacks with almost a third of the regular season yet to play. Puck drop is at 8:05 p.m. EST.
“Chicago has been one of the hottest teams in the league, so they’ve been playing pretty good hockey as of late,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “We’ve both made some moves recently and changed our personnel a little bit, so it’ll be good to see where we’re at.”
Muskegon, which leads the East with 63 points, is 4-0 against Chicago overall and 2-0 at Fox Valley Ice Arena. Their last meeting came on New Year’s Eve, which went 2-0 to the host Lumberjacks.
Since then, however, the Steel (53 points) are 10-3 with some wins over some very good teams, including two apiece over Fargo and two over Sioux City.
Not only would a win over the Steel increase their lead in the East, a win could provide a psychological edge over their rivals with a perfect 5-0 record against them.
“We want to have the edge, obviously, but they’re a good hockey team and we don’t expect to get a sweep,” Hamilton said. “In a playoff series against a good team you’re not going to sweep them, and the same applies in the regular season. We’re just looking to do the best we can do and remain extremely competitive.”
The Steel are 8-2 over their last 10 games. They boast one of the hottest scorers of late, as Nick Abruzzese leads the entire USHL in scoring with 54 points.
The only team with a better record in their last 10 games is Muskegon’s other opponent this weekend.
Sioux Falls is 8-1-1 over that stretch to move up to 56 points, good for third in the West behind Tri-City (64) and Waterloo (58).
The Stampede also have a tough game on Friday at Team USA U18s, so both teams will have the same amount of rest, although Sioux Falls’ overall trip is much longer.
Sioux Falls is led offensively by Jami Krannila and Artem Ivanyuzhenkov, who both have 35 points. Krannila is more the playmaker with 22 assists, while Ivanyuzhenkov is the sniper with 20 goals. Egor Afanasyev leads Muskegon with 44 total points.
The Stampede, though, are more know for their defense. Goaltenders Alec Calvaruso and Jaxson Stauber each have 11 wins. Muskegon’s Brandon Bussi meanwhile has 25 wins.
“(The Stampede) are one of those teams like the others in the West that play really tight defensively,” Hamilton said. “They take pride in tight, good defensive hockey.
“This is a big weekend for us. We have three games against three playoff teams, so the caliber of hockey will be really high.”
The Lumberjacks are dealing with many injuries right now, but Hamilton doesn’t believe there are any long-term or major injuries. He gave the players Monday morning off in an effort to get them to recover more quickly.
The Saturday game against the Stampede starts at 7:15 p.m. EST, while the Sunday matinee game begins at 3:15 p.m.
The Lumberjacks will be wearing University of Michigan-themed jerseys for the Sunday matinee contest. There will also be in-game U-M festivities, and former Muskegon High School football star and Wolverine defensive lineman Terrance Taylor will drop the puck.
The U-M Lakeshore Alumni Club will be joining, and all prospective and current students, alumni, employees and FANS of the Maize & Blue alike are welcome.
For the complete USHL standings, click here.