MUSKEGON, MI – Sweeping three games in three days is never easy anywhere, including the United States Hockey League.
This is true even when you’re a first-place team like the Muskegon Lumberjacks playing the last-place Madison Capitols, who are a whopping 45 points behind.
The Capitols rolled into L.C. Walker Arena Saturday and took an improbable two-goal lead, but the host Lumberjacks rallied behind Danil Gushchin, who recorded his first USHL hat trick.
The 17-year-old Russian started the comeback with a power-play goal late in the first period, gave Muskegon its first lead of the game nine minutes into the third period and added an empty-net goal to secure the 5-3 win Saturday night.
“Gushchin was very good for us. He kind of put us on his back,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “He had some jump in his step. We were in the midst of trying to figure out who had some juice left, and he was definitely one of those that had some energy to bring to the table.”
Muskegon won its 34th game of the season and moved to the brink of qualifying for the playoffs. Its 71 points is 34 points in front of Central Illinois and Green Bay.
The way the Capitols took the early 2-0 lead was unusual, to say the least.
The Lumberjacks went on their first power play of the game 10 minutes into the first period, but before the power play expired it was Madison which had scored not one but two short-handed goals. Chaz Smedsrud stole the puck and scored 34 seconds into the Lumberjack power play, right after a shorthanded breakaway was broken up.
Then a little over a minute later the Capitols struck again a man down, as Noah Weber tallied his seventh of the season on an assist from Sam Miller.
“That’s obviously not the start we were hoping for,” Hamilton said. “We were not sharp mentally. There were lots of mistakes, some bad pinches and bad decisions that we don’t normally make.
“The good part is the guys didn’t get frustrated and stuck with it. They eventually found a way to get going again. In the third we played closer to our identity.”
The Lumberjacks were able to even the score before the first period ended.
The next power play went much better than the first one, as the hosts needed just five seconds to get on the board. Gushchin’s 14th of the season came from Egor Afanasyev and Nash Nienhuis at the 15:07 mark.
Bobby Lynch made it 2-2 at 18:22 with an even-strength goal from Igor Larionov and Nic Belpedio.
Madison (10-29-4-2) wasn’t done, however. It regained the lead at 9:33 via the power play. Josh Boyer scored his 10th of the season and prompted Hamilton to look for even more of a spark by making the goalie change from starter Ryan McInchak, who stopped 15-of-18 shots, to Brandon Bussi.
Not even three minutes later Max Ellis pulled Muskegon even with an unassisted goal, and that’s the way it stayed through 40 minutes of play.
Gushchin gave the Lumberjacks their first lead of the game at 8:57 of the third period, and his empty-netter at 18:59 secured the three-game weekend sweep.
“It was a big two points for us,” Hamilton said. “We’re pretty much there when it comes to the playoffs, and we’re still close with Tri-City in the push for the Anderson Cup and have a couple of other things in play, so we’re happy to get six points this weekend.”
Bussi stopped all nine shots he faced to record his 28th win of the season. Muskegon outshot Madison 49-27.
For the complete USHL standings, click here.