By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks faced a major test this weekend against one of the best teams in the United States Hockey League.
They clearly earned a passing grade – maybe even an A-plus – after coming back from a heartbreaking overtime loss Friday and posting an impressive win Saturday.
The Lumberjacks jumped out to a two-goal lead in the first period, then displayed a newfound ability to kill penalties, en route to a 3-1 win over the Dubuque Fighting Saints in front of about 2,000 at L.C. Walker Sports Arena.
The victory avenged Friday’s night’s overtime loss to Dubuque, in which Lumberjacks blew a third-period lead and lost after giving up a foolish penalty in the extra session. They came out of the weekend with three of four possible points in the standings, including the single point they earned for the overtime loss.
That allowed Muskegon to pull into second place in the UHL’s Eastern Conference with 19 points, one point ahead of Dubuque. The Lumberjacks have now won two of their last three games.
“We got off to a good start for the first time against Dubuque, went up two goals, didn’t give anything up in the second, and hung in there and continued to battle,” said coach Todd Krygier. “We were all disappointed last night, but when you get disappointed, you don’t get disheartened, you get determined.”
Penalties and power plays were the key for both teams all weekend. The Lumberjacks lost Friday after giving up three power play goals, including the decisive goal in overtime.
They were much improved in that category Saturday, killing five penalties without giving up a goal, including a 5-on-3 Dubuque advantage in the second period, and an elbowing major that left Muskegon a man short for five minutes in the third.
Muskegon also got a brilliant effort from goalie Jordan Uhelski, who stopped 36 shots to collect his fourth win of the season.
Uhelski was particularly tough after the final period, making 17 saves, including two on Dubuque breakaways and several more from close range. Dubuque outshot Muskegon on the night 37-29.
“I can’t lie, for a little bit there I was kind of wondering if it was going to work out,” said Uhelski, who credited his defensemen for blocking several shots. “You have to have confidence in yourself and your team to pull you through at the end of these games.”
The Lumberjacks opened the scoring eight minutes into the first period on a goal by Matt McCardle, who notched his first tally of the season with assists from Alex Toscano and Carson Gatt.
They extended their lead with a power play goal with 3:25 left in the period, when Matt Iacopelli boomed a shot from the point, then Trevor Morbeck tipped in the rebound for his fifth goal of the season.
The second period was scoreless, and Muskegon’s penalty killing unit helped keep it that way. The Lumberjacks where whistled for back-to-back penalties at the five minute and 5:40 marks, which gave Dubuque a two man advantage for 1:20. But the Lumberjacks calmly killed the penalties and maintained a two-goal edge at the break.
Dubuque got on the scoreboard just over a minute into the third period when Jason Ford tipped a bouncing puck past Uhelski. The Fighting Saints had a great chance to tie about a minute later when Muskegon’s Trevor Morbeck was called for an elbowing major, leaving the Lumberjacks a man short for five minutes.
But again the power play unit rose to the task.
“We did a fantastic job on the power play,” Krygier said. “We made some changes – we went with three defensemen and one forward on the top. Before we had two forwards and two defensemen and obviously we were struggling. We felt this would help against this team and the guys did a great job – blocking shots, causing shots to go wide.
“Jordan also made some great saves. Your goalie always has to be your best penalty killer.”
Muskegon’s Steven Spinner put the nail in Dubuque’s coffin with an open net goal with 1:13 left in the contest.