By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Nobody can accuse the Muskegon Lumberjacks of giving anything less than their very best effort to qualify for the United States Hockey League playoffs.
After falling well out of the playoff picture about a month ago, the Lumberjacks roared back to win 10 of 14 games to set up a final-game showdown with Green Bay Saturday night.
Then they overcame a three-goal deficit against the Gamblers Saturday and tied the game in the third period, with the final playoff spot on the line.
But in the end it wasn’t quite enough.
Green Bay’s Matthew Weis score on a power play goal with just under 10 minutes left in the contest, and the Gamblers held on for a 4-3 victory over the Lumberjacks in front of 3,030 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
Green Bay goes on to face Indiana in the first round of the Clark Cup playoffs. The Lumberjacks ended their season with a 30-25-5 record, good for 65 points and fifth place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.
“I love this team and I’m happy about the year we had,” said Lumberjack co-captain Cullen Hurley, who scored a goal in the game. “I played with a bunch of great guys. We never gave up, but we just came up short at the end.”
Muskegon coach Todd Krygier gave his team credit for fighting hard in the final weeks of the season to come as close as they did to the playoffs.
“I couldn’t have asked anything more out of them – the effort was great,” said Krygier, who completed his first year as coach of the team. “In the end, the team we had at the end of the year, after the trade deadline, couldn’t make up for the deficit we had in the beginning of the season.
“The reality is that these guys worked hard and found a way to come back in this game, but we needed to kill that penalty (in the third period) and we didn’t kill it off. I give credit to Green Bay. They’re a good hockey team and they beat us when it mattered.”
The Lumberjacks came out flat in perhaps the worst possible game to do so.
Green Bay drew first blood just 1:14 into the game with a goal from Weis.
The Gamblers went up 2-0 midway through the first period when Ryan Siroky popped a rebound past Muskegon goalie Eric Schierhorn.
The second period started more hopefully for the Lumberjacks when Green Bay was whistled for two penalties in the first seven minutes.
But the Gamblers killed the first power play, then put the Lumberjacks in serious jeopardy when Sebastian Weberg scored a short-handed goal 8:15 into the period, giving Green Bay a 3-0 lead.
That’s when the Lumberjacks woke up.
Robbie Demontis won a faceoff in the Green Bay zone, then Hurley popped in a shot in from the point with 7:24 left in the second period, cutting Muskegon’s deficit to 3-1.
The Lumberjacks pulled within one goal with 35 seconds left in period when Jack Rowe lifted a shot past Green Bay goalie Jared Rutledge.
Muskegon completed its comeback just 1:34 into the third period when Trevor Morbeck scored with a wrist shot from the top of the circle.
But Morbeck was whistled for a hooking penalty near the midway mark of the period, and Weis scored the game winner on the ensuing power play.
The Lumberjacks’ effort to force overtime was hampered in the last minute when they received a two minute bench minor for having too many players on the ice.
Krygier was not happy about the call.
“The refereeing in this league is terrible,” he said. “If you’re going to call it, call it on both ends. Be consistent. You don’t make that call with that much time left and have an impact on the game like that. These guys have no idea what they’re doing.”