By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Good teams never, ever say die.
And the Muskegon Lumberjacks have finally reached the point where they have to be considered a pretty good team.
A night after beating the elite Omaha Lancers in an exciting overtime shootout, the Lumberjacks found themselves trailing Lincoln by two goals late in the game on Saturday.
But Lumberjack forward Jack Rowe certainly didn’t give up. He somehow scored two goals in the final 1:13 of regulation to force an unlikely overtime period.
Then Daniel Willett took his turn being the star in yet another overtime shootout, getting the puck past Lincoln goalie Jacob Nehama to clinch a thrilling 5-4 victory for Muskegon in front of 3,306 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
The victory was the ninth in the past 11 games for the Lumberjacks, who spent most of the season hovering around the .500 mark in a maddening win-one, lose-one pattern.
More importantly, it kept the Lumberjacks (29-24-4) tied with Green Bay for fourth place and the final playoff spot in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. The Jacks have three games left in the regular season – Sunday in Ann Arbor against Team USA, then next Friday in Chicago and Saturday at home against Green Bay.
Muskegon coach Todd Krygier admitted he never expected a comeback so late in the game, but he was more than happy to take it.
“That was not a good game, but I’ll give them credit, they found a way to stay alive,” Krygier said. “I was pretty upset the way they played for most of the night – until the last few minutes it was ridiculous. But it’s impressive they found a way go get it done, particularly after (Lincoln’s) fourth goal. It showed a lot of character.
“It’s been a hard process a long process for us, but the guys hare worked hard and scraped and clawed their way back in. I think all the comebacks we’ve had in the past few weeks have convinced us that the game is never over until the final buzzer.”
For most of Saturday’s game it seemed like the Lumberjacks were regressing to a bad habit they strugged with all season – playing great against top teams (like Omaha on Friday), then laying an egg against lesser teams like Lincoln.
The Lumberjacks came out flying in the first period, and drew first blood when Matt Iacopelli, the league’s leading goal scorer, notched his 40th of the season just over four minutes into the game.
Lincoln tied the score with 2:37 left when a Star broke in to the Muskegon zone on a breakaway and Lumberjack goalie Eric Schierhorn wandered far out of his crease – nearly to the blue line – to cut him off. The puck got past Schierhorn and Lincoln’s Christian Lampasso knocked it into an empty net.
Lampasso chipped in another goal eight seconds later, giving Lincoln a 2-1 edge after one period.
The Starts outshot the Lumberjacks 19-8 in the first period.
Muskegon’s Chris Dodero tied the score with a power play goal with 5:38 left in the second period, and the teams went to the locker knotted 2-2.
Things went badly for the Lumberjacks for most of the third period. Lincoln’s Magnus Huff chipped a backhand past Schierhorn midway through the period, giving the Stars a 3-2 lead. Then John Simonson added a goal with 2:31 remaining, giving the visitors what seemed like a safe 4-3 edge.
That’s when Rowe and the Lumberjacks finally woke up and did their best work of the night.
Rowe’s first goal came with 1:13 remaining, and his game-tier came with seven ticks remaining on the clock.
“It just shows the team’s heart – we’re in it to go all the way,” said Rowe, who had played very well since coming to Muskegon in a late season trade with Fargo. “We were just throwing everything we had at the net – Trevor (Morbeck) one up off my elbow pad and went in for the first goal, then we had just a scramble in front of the net, it just popped on my stick and was able to put it in (for the second).
“We’ve really come together the past few weeks and we really believe we can do it.”
The five minute overtime was scoreless, then each team managed a single goal in the first three rounds of the overtime shootout.
That left it up to Willett, who scored the winning goal after Lincoln missed his final shot.