MUSKEGON, MI – Don’t look now, but five whole months of the United States Hockey League schedule are in the books.
The Muskegon Lumberjacks are in great shape at the top of the Eastern Conference standings with 71 points. In fact, thanks to Central Illinois’ loss Sunday the Lumberjacks have already qualified for the Clark Cup playoffs with a month and a half to go.
But Muskegon has its sights set on more. It would like a first-round bye, a top seed for the playoffs and even the Anderson Cup as the top team during the regular season.
But to do that, there’s still plenty of work to do, as in a total of 14 games in March and April.
“We’re working on just staying focused and improving on a daily basis,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “We’re coming to the end of a brutal part in our schedule in regards to travel, competition and just the amount of games. We’ve got two more road weekends in a row here, and then we get to come up for air a little bit.”
The Lumberjacks do have a big test coming up this Saturday and Sunday in the Youngstown Phantoms. Both games are at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio, with the Saturday contest at 7:05 p.m. and the Sunday contest at 5 p.m.
Other than the talented Team USA U18s, no other team has given Muskegon as much trouble this season as the Phantoms.
Muskegon owns a 4-2 record over Youngstown and has outscored them 22-16 in the process, but three of the games have been an absolute battle and have been decided by one goal.
The Phantoms are on a two-game winning streak against the Lumberjacks, including their last meeting on January 12 at L.C. Walker Arena, where the Phantoms thumped the Lumberjacks 5-1.
“The last time we played them they manhandled us,” Hamilton said. “We’re excited to get another chance at them. Hopefully we’re better prepared this time around.”
Muskegon comes into the two-game weekend a lot healthier than it was when it battled through the brutal stretch of the last month and a half, and are on a three-game winning streak and 7-3 in the last 10 games.
Youngstown is also 7-3 in its last 10 and has won two straight. At 24-18-1-3, it is in fourth place in the East, 19 points behind the Lumberjacks.
The Lumberjacks have found their offense again recently with the return of their health. They’ve scored at least five goals in four of their last five games. They also boast four scorers in the top 13 of the USHL, including Egor Afanasyev in sixth place with 53 points.
The Phantoms possess two scorers in the top 13, including top scorer Brett Murray in first place and Jack Malone, who is tied for 13th with Muskegon’s Mikael Hakkarainen and Alex Yakovenko.
Muskegon leads the USHL in goals with 193 and goal differential at a +65 (tied with Tri-City). Youngstown has scored 156 goals but is a -10 for the season, as it has given up 166 goals.
For the complete USHL standings, click here.