By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks clearly saved their best for last.

But will it be enough to sneak the team into the United States Hockey League playoffs?

We’ll find out this weekend, when the Jacks play their last two regular-season games while trying to protect a slight lead in the race for the final playoff spot.

The Lumberjacks, who not long ago were considered all but out of the playoff picture, have roared back to win 9 of their past 12 games.

They probably played their best hockey of the season last weekend, when they beat the powerful Omaha Lancers in an overtime shootout on Friday, rallied to beat the Lincoln Stars in an overtime shootout on Saturday, and rallied to force overtime against the talented Team USA under-18 squad on Sunday.

The high point was Saturday, when the Jacks trailed Lincoln by two goals with time running out. Forward Jack Rowe, one of the team’s final acquisitions this year, managed to score two goals in the final 1:13 to force overtime, then the team won in a shootout.

While they ended up losing Sunday’s game in yet another shootout, the tie in regulation earned the Lumberjacks a point in the standings and moved them into sole possession of fourth place (and the final playoff spot) in the Eastern Conference.

“I thought it was great,” said Muskegon coach Todd Krygier, whose team has been specializing in third period, heart-stopping comebacks in recent weeks.

“To get five out of six points, and make comebacks in each of the games, told me the guys were really focused. They showed determination and commitment to make a run for the playoffs.

“I’ve said all along that if the guys were willing to work hard, I thought they could get in this position. At end of day their character is starting to come out. They’ve always been a hard working team for me. They’ve always responded. It was just a matter of gaining some consistency.”

Now the challenge is to hold onto fourth place through two big games this weekend.

Muskegon currently has 63 points in the standings, followed by Green Bay (62), Team USA (61) and Chicago (60).

The Lumberjacks visit Chicago Friday, then host Green Bay on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. in what very well could be the decisive game in the playoff race.

The Jacks could clinch the playoff spot Friday if they beat Chicago, and Green Bay and Team USA both lose. It’s entirely possible, since Green Bay visits first place Indiana on Friday and Team USA hosts a good Sioux City team the same night.

But they can’t afford to bet on that scenario. And they can’t put a lot of stock in the league’s tiebreaker system, which is based on head-to-head matchups. The Lumberjacks are 1-3-1 this season against both Green Bay and Chicago, meaning they would lose out if they ended up tied with either team.

They would only win the playoff spot if they were tied with Team USA. The Lumberjacks have a 5-2-1 record against their Ann Arbor-based rivals.

The bottom line is that the Lumberjacks control their own destiny. If they win both games this weekend, they’re in the playoffs, and that would be the best way to settle the issue, according to Krygier.

“Were in the best position of anybody,” Krygier said. “Everybody else needs help. We play six good periods of hockey and we make the playoffs.

“But this is a tough issue because our record against Chicago and Green Bay has not been good. We haven’t fared well. We’re going to have to execute and play well to beat them.”