By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Sometimes it doesn’t matter how badly a team plays when it has a player like Matt Iacopelli.
The Muskegon Lumberjacks blew a two-goal lead against a last place team Saturday night.
To make matters worse, they failed to convert on seven power play opportunities and gave up another short-handed goal.
But Scott Pooley scored his second goal of the game with 2:16 remaining in regulation, forcing a five-minute overtime period.
Then Iacopelli scored on a breakaway with 12 seconds left in overtime, giving the Lumberjacks a thrilling and desperately needed 4-3 victory over the Chicago Steel in front of 2,018 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
The victory broke a four-game losing streak for the Lumberjacks, their longest of the season. It also ended a three-game skid on their home ice and put the team back over the .500 mark with an 11-10-4 record.
“I was looking to go blocker side to get a rebound to come out for the guys breaking in on the other side, but the goalie had his five hole open So I went five hole and it went in,” said Iacopelli, who had two goals in the game to bring his team-leading total to 16.
“We needed this bad. That was a tough losing streak – four straight games. To finally get a win, it feels great.”
A lot of Lumberjack fans were probably counting on Chicago being the right remedy for their team’s losing streak. The Steel started the season with 10 straight losses and came into Saturday’s game in last place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.
And early on it looked like the Lumberjacks would dominate.
Muskegon opened the scoring with 12:26 left in the first period when Poole circled behind the Chicago goal and popped a backhanded shot past Steel goalie Chris Nell. It was Poole’s seventh goal of the season.
The Lumberjacks went up 2-0 with 5:44 left in the first period when Iacopelli notched his 15th goal of the season.
Muskegon had an excellent chance to pull away in the second period when Chicago was whistled for four penalties. The best opportunity came when two Steel players were called for cross checking within 10 seconds of each other, giving Muskegon a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:50.
But Muskegon failed to take advantage of the two-man edge. The Lumberjacks were 0-for-7 in power play opportunities in the game.
“It’s frustrating because we had opportunities there (on the power play) and we didn’t convert them,” Lumberjacks’ head coach Todd Krygier said. “We’re just coming up a little bit short.”
The only goal of the period came after Chicago’s first penalty, when former Lumberjack C. J. Smith notched a shorthanded tally, cutting Muskegon’s lead to 2-1 at the second intermission.
Shorthanded goals have been a problem lately for the Lumberjacks. They gave up one Friday night to Indiana, and two on the same power play last weekend against Green Bay.
“We’re putting our most talented players on the ice during power plays, and that ends up being four or five forwards at a time,” Krygier said. “We’re trying to create something offensively, and we’re giving up something defensively. That’s the risk you take.”
Chicago tied the score 2-2 early in the third period on a power play goal by Rob Payne.
Smith struck again with 14:55 remaining when he took a pass in front of the goal from a teammate in the corner and poked the puck past Muskegon goalie Jordan Uhelski, giving Chicago a stunning 3-2 lead.
The situation was starting to look desperate for the Lumberjacks, particularly after Chicago killed a Muskegon power play with less than five minutes remaining in regulation.
But Pooley managed to tie the score with 2:16 remaining, and Iacopelli put the nail in Chicago’s coffin with his 16th goal in the final seconds of overtime.
“This was huge,” Krygier said. “We’ve been losing and the guys’ confidence hasn’t been great. This was a very big win for us.”