By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Maybe, just maybe, this weekend’s two thrilling overtime victories will give the Muskegon Lumberjacks the momentum they need to squeeze into the playoffs.
The Lumberjacks, who have been hovering around the .500 mark all season, came into the weekend with an alarming three-game losing streak.
Then Friday’s game against Des Moines started badly, with the visitors grabbing a four-goal lead after two periods, before the Lumberjacks stormed back to win in overtime.
They maintained their hot play Saturday with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Waterloo Black Hawks, one of the top teams in the United States Hockey League, in front of 2,315 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
Muskegon and Waterloo played to a 2-2 draw through regulation and a five-minute overtime period. Then came the shootout, where the first 13 shooters (seven from Waterloo and six from Muskegon) failed to score, leaving the fans on the edge of their seats.
Muskegon’s Heralds Egle finally resolved the issue by knocking a backhand shot past Waterloo goalie Cameron Johnson to seal the victory.
Lumberjack goalie Eric Schierhorn was outstanding in the win, stopping 38 saves in regulation and overtime and another seven in the pressure-filled shootout.
“I knew was I supposed to do and I did it,” said Egle about his game-winning goal. “I was just looking for the goalie to make his first move. I kind of faked it, it looked like he believed it, so I went backhand. It was a big game for us.”
The Lumberjacks improved to 22-22-4 on the season, good for 48 points in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. They are now only four points (two victories) behind the Chicago Steel, the team currently holding fourth place and the final playoff stop in the Eastern Conference.
Waterloo fell to 34-10-3 on the season.
With only 12 games left in the regular season, Lumberjacks coach Todd Krygier can only hope his team is ready to go on the type of winning streak it hasn’t managed all season.
Muskegon started the season 4-0, but hasn’t won more than two in a row since then. The Lumberjacks may have to do better than that in the coming weeks to secure the final playoff berth.
“We haven’t been on a run all year,” Krygier said following Saturday’s win. “It’s frustrating.
But we had two big wins this weekend. We’re not out of it. I’m just really focusing on the short term rather than looking at the playoff picture, because it sometimes gets overwhelming. If we continue playing the way we’re playing, I think we have a really good chance.”
The Lumberjacks drew first blood just over five minutes into the first period when Janik Moeser’s long shot from beyond the blue line seemed to catch Waterloo goalie Johnson by surprise. The puck appeared to bounce off his left shoulder before going into the net, giving Muskegon a 1-0 lead.
Waterloo tied the score with 10:40 left in the first period with a goal from Liam Pecarado.
Muskegon pulled ahead 2-1 about a minute into the second period when Matt Mendelson chipped in his 14th goal of the season from close range. Waterloo tied the score again six minutes later when Tyler Sheehy’s slow rolling shot dribbled past Schierhorn.
The Lumberjacks were lucky to escape with a tie after two periods. They were outshot 18-11 in the second and spent much of their time trying to clear the puck from their zone.
The third period was scoreless, with Muskegon missing several outstanding scoring opportunities, including a breakaway by Matt Iacopelli, the league’s leading goal scorer, whose shot was stuffed by Johnson.
The Lumberjacks had several more opportunities to seal the victory near the end of the third period and in overtime, with two power plays that gave them a man advantage for a full seven minutes.
The second power play came when Waterloo’s Lawton Courtnall was called for a five minute major for checking from behind with 2:54 left in the third period.
That gave Muskegon a one-man advantage for the rest of regulation and nearly half of the overtime period, but the Lumberjacks failed to score on either power play, forcing the decisive shootout.
The missed opportunities might have spelled doom for Muskegon, if it weren’t for Egle’s game-ending goal in the shootout.
“We had a five-on-four advantage and a four-on-three and some great opportunities,” Krygier said. “Their goalie did a nice job and they killed them out. I wasn’t upset about the way we handled it. I think we could have taken a few more shots instead of looking for that perfect play.
“But we gained two huge points tonight. I have a ton of respect for their coach and that team. They’re one of the top teams in the league and we came in and played well against them.”