By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
Until recently, the home ice at L.C. Walker Arena had been very friendly to the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
They built a 7-4 record over their first 11 home games, and the victories were enough to keep Muskegon within striking distance in the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference race.
But the home hot streak turned icy cold in recent weeks, with three losses in the last four home games against teams the Lumberjacks played very well against earlier in the season.
And the opportunities for wins in front of the home fans are quickly drying up, thanks to the USHL schedule makers.
The Lumberjacks will play 10 of their next 11 games on the road in a stretch that will extend until Jan. 18. The grueling challenge begins this weekend when Muskegon visits the Indiana Ice on Friday night and the Chicago Steel on Saturday.
The only home game on the horizon will be a Sunday night encounter on Dec. 29 against Youngstown at 5:15 p.m. Then the Lumberjacks face nine straight road games between Dec. 30 and Nov. 18.
“Everyone’s aware we have a lot of away games in January,” said Lumberjacks co-captain Mason Jobst. “Right now our mind set is on getting a win tomorrow night. We’re not looking that far ahead.
“But besides those two Green Bay games (last week) every one of our road losses have been by one goal. We’re good on the road.”
The last few weeks have been strange for the Lumberjacks. Perhaps the high point of their season came Nov. 23 at home, when they beat the previously undefeated Team USA 18-and-under squad 5-3.
But over the next week they lost three straight games to Green Bay, including two on home ice on two straight nights. Their woes continued last Friday when they dropped a 4-3 home decision to Indiana.
“We don’t really have an answer (for what went wrong),” Jobst said. “Teams go through slumps in a 60-game season. Losing at home is so much worse.
“In Green Bay we played them hard, even though we lost by three goals, they scored three in the last minute. Then we came home, it was a long trip back, we came out flat and they took it to us. And we didn’t bounce back very well the next night.”
It appeared the skid would continue on Saturday when the Lumberjacks blew an early two goal lead and trailed Chicago in the final period.
But Scott Pooley’s second goal of the game, with about two minutes left in regulation, tied the game, then Matt Iacopelli scored in the final minute of overtime to give the Lumberjacks a much-needed 4-3 victory.
Iacopelli scored his team-leading 15th and 16th goals of the season Saturday. He’s currently third in the league in goals and seventh in overall scoring.
“It was huge,” Jobst said. “Everyone in that locker room knew this was a must win game. We had to get those big two points, turn this ship around, and get back to .500 going into the holiday.”
Jobst said the team had a meeting Friday after the loss to Indiana, and reminded each other that it was important to keep their heads up and get a victory.
“We were basically saying this is a slump – even team goes through it – and the good teams know how to react,” he said. “That’s what determines the top teams in the league from the bottom.
“I think coming back from Christmas it will be a fresh start for us. We’ve been talking about how we’re a team of young guys, but after Christmas nobody will be a rookie anymore. After the holidays I think we’ll have more consistency.”
STILL IN THE RACE
Despite the recent losses, the Lumberjacks remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference race.
They are 11-11-4, good for 26 points and fifth place in the conference. But they’re only one point behind Cedar Rapids, two behind Indiana and Green Bay, five behind Team USA and seven behind first-place Dubuque.
SPARTAN COMING TO TOWN
The Lumberjacks announced Thursday they have acquired forward Connor Wood, who’s been playing collegiately for the Michigan State Spartans. He will make his Lumberjacks debut Friday night in Indiana.
Wood, the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan native, was in his second year with the Michigan State program after redshirting his freshman season. The forward was a fourth-round pick (55th overall) by the Des Moines Buccaneers in the 2010 USHL Futures Draft and played in one game for the Buccaneers during the 2010-11 season.
Prior to joining the Spartans, Wood spent the 2011-12 season with the Detroit Honeybaked Under-18 Team based out of Oak Park, recording 57 points (26 goals and 31 assists) in 61 games played while serving as an alternate captain on the team. He was a teammate of Brock Krygier, who is the son of Lumberjacks Head Coach Todd Krygier and currently a redshirt defenseman for the Spartans.
The Lumberjacks also released defenseman Myles McGurty after he appeared in nine games for Muskegon, tallying one assist.