By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – How much have the Muskegon Lumberjacks improved lately?

About a month ago they played the Team USA 18 and under squad and were waxed by four goals. It was easily their worst defeat of the season.

The Lumberjacks were not alone in that respect. Team USA was undefeated in 10 games this season with its 18-year-olds in the lineup.

But the new-look Lumberjacks were far from intimidated Saturday night, grabbing an early two-goal lead and coasting to an impressive 5-3 victory over first-place Team USA in front of 2,092 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.

The victory improved Muskegon’s record to 10-7-4 and kept the team in the middle of the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference race. Team USA (13-6-1) still leads the conference with 27 points, but the Lumberjacks are right on their heels with 24.

The win also put the icing on an encouraging weekend for the Lumberjacks. They gained a point in the standings Friday night in a 3-2 overtime loss to Cedar Rapids, the second-place team in the Eastern Conference. And Saturday’s outcome made it clear that Muskegon might be a team to contend with the rest of the season.

“We had a really rough first two periods last night, then I thought the third period we played well, and tonight we kind of changed some things up for USA to slow them down,” said Muskegon Coach Todd Krygier. “The guys stuck to the system. I thought we played a great game today. It was probably our best game of the season.

“It’s about time. It took 21 games. In our 21st game we beat who I think is the best team in the league. I give all the credit to the guys. We put the system in place but they have to go play the games.”

One player who was happy with the win was Trevor Morbeck, who missed two games last weekend on a league suspension for an elbowing incident, but had two goals on Saturday, including the first goal in the opening minutes of the game and an empty-netter to seal the win.

“It was nice to jump back in and help the team get a victory against a tough team,” Morbeck said. “We’re getting a lot better, we’re starting to come together and really clicking. We’ve got a lot of new guys who are just starting to get to know each other, so it’s nice to get this victory against this team.”

Muskegon continued its recent hot streak on the power play, scoring two of its four goals with a man advantage. The Lumberjacks have now scored at least one power play goal in their last five games, after struggling in that area earlier in the season.

Muskegon managed to win despite switching goalies halfway through the second period. Krygier pulled starter Jordan Uhelski just after Team USA scored its second goal and replaced him with Eric Schierhorn.

Inserting a cold goalie against Team USA was probably risky, since the visitors are easily the highest scoring team in the league with 94 goals. The second highest scoring team came into Saturday with 70 goals, while the Lumberjacks came in with 62.

“After the second goal I said at that point we’re going to change it up,” Krygier said. “I might have been a bit premature, but we were playing too well for me not to make sure we were solid back there. I think Eric was surprised. It’s not too often you are up two goals and pull your goalie. In this case it worked out.”

The Lumberjacks came our roaring in the first period with a goals from Morbeck and Cooper Marody in the first 11 minutes. Team USA got a power play goal from Jack Eichel late in the period to pull within 2-1.

Muskegon built its lead to 4-1 in the first five minutes of the second period with goals from Mason Jobst and Matt Mendelson. Dylan Larkin scored for Team USA midway through the period, which prompted Krygier to change goalies.

The visitors got another goal from Eichel with just over two minutes left in the game to narrow their deficit to 4-3, but Morbeck finished them off with an open net goal with 56 seconds remaining.