By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal

The Muskegon Lumberjacks certainly didn’t do themselves any favors down the stretch of the USHL’s regular season.

A team that had high hopes of finishing second in the Eastern Conference limped to the finish by winning three of its final 10 games. So, instead of finishing runner-up to Dubuque, the Jacks have to face Dubuque in the first-round of the USHL playoffs beginning Wednesday night.

Finishing second could have given Muskegon home-ice advantage against either Green Bay or Youngstown, two teams that didn’t exactly light it up down the stretch either, but did just enough to push Muskegon down into the fourth spot.

I would have given the Lumberjacks a good chance of defeating either of those teams in the first round, but Dubuque presents many more challenges.

Does Muskegon have a chance to knock off the best team in the league after 64 regular-season games? I guess so, but it certainly would be a monumental upset.

Dubuque’s numbers are impressive from a team standpoint to an individual standpoint. Three players with more than 30 goals, the league’s No. 1 goaltender, the league’s best team at jumping out to a first-period lead and hanging onto it for 60 minutes, the league’s best defensive team. And at some point in the series, Muskegon must win a game in Dubuque, where the Fighting Saints had a 25-3-4 record.

I could go on further, but you get the point.

So, what would it take for Muskegon to win this series?

It starts with goaltender Kevin Lindskoug, who just so happens to be the No. 2 goaltender in the league with a 2.49 goals-against-average and a league-high eight shutouts. He must stand on his head for the Jacks to have a chance in this series.

Muskegon has a formidable penalty-killing unit that is one of the league’s best. With every penalty, every goal, every odd-man rush being magnified in its importance come playoff time, the Jacks must be solid on the PK. On the other hand, Dubuque’s penalty kill has been a bit suspect at times and finished 15th of 16 with a 78.6 success rate.

Popping in a couple power-play goals could give Muskegon some momentum.

Speaking of goals, the Jacks will be without second-leading scorer Joe Cox and that’s a huge hole to fill in a series when you need all your top players at full speed. That just means  forwards Adam Gilmour, Brian Morgan, Cameron Darcy and Christian Heil have to elevate their games. Offensive-minded defenseman Michael Brodzinski has been solid contributor offensively and that must continue into the playoffs as well.

I have no doubt Coach Jim McKenzie will have his players ready to play. They must be ready right from the opening draw of the opening game because you know Dubuque will try to establish their will on Muskegon early. Weather the storm, settle in and do all the little things that are so important and the Jacks have a chance.

Fall behind early and the series could end real early.

Prediction: Dubuque in four games.