By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal
The hard work and the effort were evident right from the start for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
But after 71:12 of hard skating, up-and-down action, the Dubuque Fighting Saints brought the Jacks’ playoff hopes to an abrupt halt in Game 3 of the USHL best-of-five quarterfinal round on Sunday night.
When Frankie DiChiara swatted a puck out of the air and into the net at 11:12 of the first overtime, the Fighting Saints captured a 3-2 victory and a three-game sweep of the playoff series.
Dubuque moves into the semifinal round where they will take on Youngstown, which knocked off Green Bay on Sunday and won that series 3-1 in games.
For Muskegon, it was a disappointing finish for Coach Jim McKenzie’s team, which missed the playoffs a year ago and battled to a fourth-place finish this season in the Eastern Conference standings.
“The guys battled all three games,” McKenzie said. “Certainly being down two in the third, we could have packed it in, but didn’t. We’ve battled all year long and tonight was no exception.
Dubuque made it look like it would handily take Game 3 based on the fact it had a pair of first-period goals from Peter Quenneville and Seamus Malone and Muskegon didn’t score despite the fact it had a couple solid chances.
And it looked even more bleak after two periods. While Duqubue didn’t score, Muskegon didn’t either and, thus, faced a two-goal deficit against the league’s top team through the regular season. The Lumberjacks, again, had scoring chances, including one that slid on the goal line after Fighting Saints goaltender Arthur Brey misplayed the puck in the latter stages of the period.
But Muskegon came alive in the final period and peppered Brey with 15 shots. Fortunately, two of them found the back of the net and the game was tied with 4:15 remaining.
“We had nothing to lose at that point,” McKenzie said. “You’re down two game and you’re down 2-0, and like I said, we’ve done that all year long. We’ve come back and we’ve battled back and we’ve hung in there in games we probably didn’t belong in.”
Muskegon got on the board at 12:36 after a scramble in front of the Dubuque net. It ended when Cullen Hurley slid a low shot behind Brey.
Cameron Darcy corralled a rebound 3 minutes later and backhanded a shot behind Brey. The comeback was complete, but not the scoring chances.
Defenseman Michael Brodzinski rang a shot off the post from the left point with 1:30 remaining.
“In kind of goes in spurts,” McKenzie said. “You get a little momentum, you get going, and we did that period. I loved the way they battled right to the very end.”
In the overtime, the visitors nearly won it early when Szmatula hit the post with a shot. Muskegon also had good puck possession deep in the Dubuque zone.
“We had then pinned in and we didn’t capitalize,” McKenzie said. “We had them running, they were tired, one player didn’t have a stick. It was one of those ones they are were able to get it out. They found a way and the next thing you know, a minute of two later, it’s in our zone and we can’t get it out.”
The end came when DiChiara swatted the puck out of the air and into the net behind Muskegon goaltender Kevin Lindskoug.
“They are a heckuva team and they showed that all year long,” McKenzie said. “They play very structured, very disciplined and they come at you hard. They played a great game and I thought we played three great games. All three were great.”