By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
Muskegon Lumberjacks coach Todd Krygier wasn’t surprised by his team’s success on its recently-completed eight-game road trip.
He may be the only one.
The Lumberjacks had won only 3 of 13 games on the road headed into the trip. And their struggles at home and on the road in November and December made the trip seem like a train wreck waiting to happen.
But Muskegon performed much better than expected, posting a 5-3 record on opposing ice. The Lumberjacks will try to build on that momentum when they return home ice this weekend for the first time in three weeks.
The Lumberjacks will host Ann Arbor-based Team USA on Friday and Saturday night at L.C. Walker Arena. Game time each night is 7:15 p.m.
The Lumberjacks are currently 17-16-4 on the season, good for 38 points and fourth place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. The Jacks trail first-place Indiana by 11 points, but are only five points behind second place Dubuque and one behind Cedar Rapids.
The long road trip started on a hopeful note with an 8-4 victory over Eastern Conference leader Indiana. Muskegon lost the next two games in Sioux City, then beat Des Moines 5-2 and Youngstown 4-3.
Indiana got even with a 4-3 win over Muskegon, but the Jacks capped the trip with a 3-2 win over Team USA and a 7-4 victory over Youngstown.
So why is the team suddenly playing so well, after struggling so badly prior to the holidays?
According to Krygier, a lot has to do with the arrival of six new players who came through various transactions over the past month or so.
“We made some player personnel changes and brought in better players,” Krygier said. “We’ve been able to solidify a lineup and get consistency in the lineup. There was a period when we had a new player coming in, if not every game then just about every game. Some guys leave, some guys stay. It’s been a rough process. But we’ve really started to solidify our roles on the team.”
The impressive newcomers are defensemen Joseph Cecconi, Christian Wolanin and Daniel Willett, and forwards Connor Wood, Matej Paulovic and Chase Hatcher. All have performed well in their limited time in Muskegon.
Wood, a scholarship player at Michigan State University, came to Muskegon over the holidays to finish the season with the Lumberjacks. The redshirt freshman is still very much in the Spartans’ plans, but it was determined that he would be better off getting more ice time this year in the USHL, Krygier said.
Wood has produced an offensive spark, scoring three goals with one assist in his first 10 games.
“I’ve known for months that Wood would be coming,” said Krygier, whose son plays at MSU and rooms with Wood at school. “We talked to (MSU coaches) and said, ‘Hey, let’s get this kid some games.’ We thought it would be a win-win for both of us and so far it’s worked well. He’s on one of our top two lines and has added some speed to our game we didn’t have.”
Wolanin has also been hot, with two goals and six assists in nine games, while Hatcher has two goals and an assist in his first two games with the Lumberjacks.
Cecconi, Wolanin and Willett – along with the returning defenseman Janik Moeser, who was away from the team for about a month – have solidified the blue line, Krygier said. The Lumberjacks had suffered from breakdowns and turnovers on defense throughout the season, and were frequently outshot by opponents.
Part of the problem was a sheer lack of defenseman for several weeks, Krygier said.
“We’ve got better legs back there now and bigger bodies, and we’ve got guys who can move defensively” he said. “And as we’ve been able to spread out the minutes more, we’ve been getting more effective play from everybody.”