By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks won their first four games of the 2013-14 season, but coach Todd Krygier wasn’t fooled.
He knew his young team had a long way to go before becoming a serious contender in the United States Hockey League.
Krygier was right. The Lumberjacks spent the next five months spittering and sputtering, winning a game here, losing a game there, and hovering around the .500 mark. Their longest winning streak over the winter months was a miserly two games.
In the meantime other teams, like the Chicago Steel, got hot and overtook Muskegon for the fourth and final playoff spot in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.
Then something happened two weeks ago. The Lumberjacks trailed Des Moines 4-0 midway through the second period on their home ice, and it seemed like everything was depressingly the same.
But then they rallied to tie the game and win in overtime, 5-4. The next night they beat Waterloo, one of the top teams in the league, 3-2 in overtime.
Last weekend they traveled to Kearney, Nebraska for a pair of games with Tri-City. On Friday they trailed 3-1 after two periods, then roared back to steal a 4-3 victory. The next night they trailed 3-2 after two periods but once again rallied for a 4-3 victory.
Several players have been hot offensively during the win streak, including Cooper Marody (three goals, including two game winners), Matej Paulovic (three goals, one game winner), Matt Iacopelli (two goals) and Trevor Morbeck (two goals).
Suddenly the Lumberjacks – or should we say the “comeback kids”- have their second four-game winning streak of the season, and a real chance to sneak into the playoffs.
Muskegon is 24-22-4, good for 52 points and fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Chicago and Green Bay are tied for fourth place and the final playoff spot with 56 points.
Muskegon and Chicago have each played 50 games while Green Bay has played 51.
The Lumberjacks have 10 games remaining, including seven on home ice. Interestingly, they play their final two games of the regular season against the teams they need to overcome – April 4 at Chicago and April 5 at home against Green Bay.
The Lumberjacks resume play this weekend with a pair of home games at L.C. Walker Arena against Youngstown, the last place team in the Eastern Conference. Puck drop is 7:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night.
While Krygier is more or less happy with the way his team is playing, he refuses to take Youngstown for granted.
“What I like about the United States Hockey League is that no matter how good a team is perceived to be, anybody can beat anybody on any given night,” Krygier said. “I don’t take Youngstown for granted for a second. They’ve struggled this year, but they have two great players and they’ve beaten us twice this season.
“If we don’t show up and play our best hockey, they could knock us down real quick.”
So after four straight dramatic wins, is Krygier convinced that his team has arrived and is ready to compete with the best in the league?
Not until they gain more consistency from start to finish, and don’t have to rely on late comebacks, he said.
“We’ve had some issues with consistency during games,” Krygier said. “Three out of the four we had to come from behind. I think we’re coming together better as a team, but some lapses during games are putting us in tough spots. If we can play more complete games, we’ll
be a far better position.
“Right now we’ve got a game in hand and we’re four points out. This is going to be a huge weekend for us. Every game now is like a playoff game, and at the end we have Chicago and Green Bay in the last two games of the season. I really believe those two games will determine whether we will make the playoffs or not.”
While he’s enjoyed his team’s exciting comebacks, Krygier isn’t willing to bank on late heroics to steer the Lumberjacks into the playoffs.
“We’ve had a few of those comebacks, and all of the sudden you start believing that the score doesn’t matter – just keep doing what we’re doing and we’ll come back and win,” he said. “But I don’t think that can hold up. We need to play more complete games and get our leads.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I have a lot of confidence. I don’t. Until the guys start showing me consistent play, period after period, it will be tough not to have concerns.”
While the coach may be concerned, the players have a great deal of confidence heading down the stretch, according to Lumberjacks center and co-captain Mason Jobst.
“It’s been great,” Jobst said. “All the changes we’ve made (in personnel) have been great. Everyone on the team believes we can make this final push. We had that big comeback against Des Moines and we just started believing in ourselves.”
The players are convinced they can win the final playoff spot, despite Chicago and Green Bay sitting stubbornly above them in the standings, according to Jobst.
“(Chicago and Green Bay) are both good teams, but on any given night they could drop a few points,” he said. “We know we have to take care of our business first. We believe that if we just play our game, they will make their mistakes and we will capitalize.”
Schierhorn the starting goalie, for now
All season long, Krygier has refused to name a starting goalie. He insisted from the beginning that he had confidence in both Eric Schierhorn and Jordan Uhelski, and whoever had the hot hand would play.
But Schierhorn has been in goal since he came in to relieve Uhelski Feb. 28 in the comeback win against Des Moines. He has played every minute of the team’s three victories since then.
So does this mean Schierhorn has won the title of starting goalie for the rest of the season?
“I’d like to say yes, but I’ve thought that a couple of times this season about both goalies, and just when I think they’ve got something going they fall on their faces,” said Krygier, who added that Schierhorn will start Friday against Youngstown. “I’m just saying, Eric is playing well and winning games, so he’ll play until I have a reason to take him out.”
Egle lost for season with wrist injury
The Lumberjacks head into the weekend dealing with one black spot – forward Haralds Egle, who has been with the team all season and has been playing particularly well in recent weeks, broke his wrist Wednesday during practice and his lost for the season.
Perhaps the highlight of his season was scoring the game-winning goal in the overtime shootout against Waterloo two weeks ago.