By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Apparently a nice long two-week rest, a game against a weak opponent, and a few new faces were just what the doctor ordered for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
A big night from leading scorer Matt Iacopelli didn’t hurt anything, either.
The Lumberjacks stumbled into the holiday break with six losses in their previous seven games, including three of four on home ice. They had dropped from the thick of the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference race to 10 points behind the first-place team.
But the Jacks looked rejuvenated Sunday in their first post-Christmas game, using a three-goal hat trick from Iacopelli to defeat the Youngstown Phantoms 5-3 in front of 2,576 fans at L.C. Walker Sports Arena.
Muskegon improved to 12-13-4 on the season for 28 points in the standings. The struggling Youngstown squad fell to 7-16-5 for 19 points.
Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier admitted the time off helped his team, but also said the recent addition of three new players – defensemen Christian Wolanin and Joseph Cecconi and forward Matej Paulovic – helped the Lumberjacks pull together and get their first win in three games.
Cecconi had a goal for Muskegon while Wolanin and Paulovic each had a pair of assists.
“We had gone through a stretch where we played well as a team, we were four games above .500, then certain things happened internally with the team and we struggled for a couple of weeks,” Krygier said. “I feel as though the changes we made, we’re going to be a better team. We did a better job playing together tonight.”
The victory should help the Lumberjacks as they embark on the biggest challenge of the regular season – eight straight games on the road, starting Monday in Indiana and extending through Jan. 18. The Lumberjacks have struggled away from home this season, winning only 3 of 13 contests.
Muskegon won’t play again at home until Jan. 24.
“Nothing easy about it,” Krygier said of the pending road trip. “But we’re up to it. We haven’t won like we should on the road, but that’s part of our development process. We’ve had leads on the road. I just think we’ve got to grow up as a team and finish those games.”
However the road trip works out, it won’t matter until Monday. At the moment the Lumberjacks are enjoying a much needed victory in their first game following the holiday break.
Iacopelli played a big role in the win, collecting the first two goals in the game, then adding another late in the second period.
His first goal came six minutes into the game when he took a perfect centering pass in front of the net from teammate Mason Jobst and beat Youngstown goalie Colin DeAugustine. Jobst had two assists on the night.
Iacopelli struck again from close range less than two minutes into the second period, when he took a pass from the point from Wolanin and nudged the puck past DeAugustine, giving Muskegon a 2-0 lead.
He put the finishing touched on his hat trick with 2:25 left in the second period, extending the Lumberjack lead to 4-1.
The 6-2, 195 pound forward from Woodhaven, Michigan now has 19 goals in the season, putting him among the top four goal scorers in the league.
Krygier thinks the big game could be a sign of things to come from Iacopelli.
“He’s been our top player for a while now and he continues to improve,” Krygier said. “He takes a lot of shots and has a great release. He’s going to continue to score.”
The Lumberjacks’ other scorers were Scott Pooley, who tallied on a breakway in the second period to put Muskegon up 3-1; and newcomer Cecconi, who scored four minutes into the third period to give the Lumberjacks a 5-2 edge.
Scorers for Youngstown were J.J. Piccinich, Maxim Letunov and Zach Evancho.
Muskegon goalie Eric Schierhorn stopped 33 of 36 shots to collect his sixth win of the season.