By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – It would have been a crying shame – and a real blow to their playoff chances – if the Muskegon Lumberjacks had gotten anything less than a victory Friday night.
They played one of their best games of the season against the Omaha Lancers, one of the top teams in the United States Hockey League.
They outshot the Lancers 42-29. They played great defense and got great goaltending. They killed off all three Omaha power plays.
But they couldn’t get a shot past Omaha goalie Hayden Hawkey in the third period or overtime.
Thank goodness for overtime shootouts.
Muskegon’s Matej Paulovic, the last scheduled player in the shootout, calmly back-handed the puck past Hawkey when it counted the most, giving the Lumberjacks a thrilling 3-2 victory in front of 2,806 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
The win improved the Lumberjacks’ record to 28-24-4, good for 60 points in the Eastern Conference standings. And it kept them at least tied for fourth place the final playoff spot with five games remaining in the regular season.
Omaha dropped to 37-15-5. The Jacks return to action Saturday night at home against Lincoln.
“I was a little nervous, but if I didn’t score the shootout would go on and I wanted to win it,” said Paulovic, who now has six goals on the season.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Muskegon coach Todd Krygier. “We had a couple of tough losses last weekend and didn’t have a real good week of practice. I was just hoping they would respond, and they did to keep us alive. We’re still alive and that’s all that matters right now.”
The Lumberjacks struck first with just over eight minutes left in the first period when Trevor Morbeck flipped a backhand shot past Hawkey.
Omaha tied the score 1-1 with 2:37 left in the first when Jake Randolph took a rebound and fired it past Muskegon goalie Eric Schierhorn.
Omaha had a 17-15 edge in shots in the first period.
Joseph Cecconi put Muskegon back on top early in the second period when he grabbed a loose puck in the right circle, weaved past a crowd of players in front of the net, and fired a wrist shot that went off Hawkey’s glove and into the net.
Omaha tied the game on a shorthanded goal by Brian Williams midway through the second period.
The Lumberjacks had a 12-5 edge in shots in the second.
The third period was intense and fast-paced, with the Lumberjacks outshooting the Lancers 12-4 and coming close to scoring on several different occasions. But they couldn’t get anything past Hawkey, forcing a five-minute overtime period.
Both teams had power plays in the final five minutes of regulation but couldn’t convert.
The overtime period was just as exciting. Muskegon’s Matt Iacopelli hit the Omaha crossbar in the opening seconds and teammate Chris Dodero was stopped on a breakaway. Lumberjack goalie Eric Schierhorn was brilliant on the other end, making several sprawling saves to preserve the tie.
That led the the shootout, where Muskegon’s Jack Rowe and Omaha’s Ryan Tait each scored before Paulovic settled the issue.
“The guys know what the situation is and they came to play,” Krygier said. “We’ve been talking about being in this position all year long and they are responding well. We’re 8-2 in our last 10 games. Now it’s just a matter of executing the rest of the way.”