By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Matej Pauloic is finding his scoring touch at the perfect time for the injury-riddled Muskegon Lumberjacks.
The 19-year-old forward, in his second season with the Jacks, did not score in the first eight games of the season.
That didn’t sit well with Paulovic, who was a fifth round draft pick of the NHL’s Dallas Stars in 2013.
Instead of moping, Paulovic put in the extra work necessary to get past his slump. He pushed himself in practice with the rest of the team, and put in a lot of ice time on his own.
His hard work is paying off.
He scored his first goal of the season Oct. 24 in a big 2-0 victory over Green Bay. He scored one of his team’s two third period goals Nov. 1 at Youngstown, giving Muskegon a 3-1 victory.
And Paulovic was at it again last Friday, notching a goal and an assist in the Jacks’ 3-2 overtime shootout loss to Tri-City, which earned the team a point in the standings.
“It was kind of bad for me,” said Paulovic, a native of Slovakia, who now has three goals and six assists this season. “I feel like I should be a leader here, and I was kind of like, I didn’t feel right if I didn’t score and didn’t help the team.”
Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier said he was never concerned about Paulovic’s lack of goals.
“I’ve been happy with way he’s been playing all season,” Krygier said. “It’s just like the case with (Lumberjacks forward) Robbie DeMontis. It wasn’t until the 14th game when he found the net. He had chances every game, he played hard, but wasn’t getting the production. It’s the same with Matej.
“It’s just those phases that these guys go through. I was never concerned. They were both working hard and playing well. I figured at some point they would break through.”
Paulovic is starting to score just when his team needs the boost the most.
The Jacks were shaken last week by injuries to three productive forwards – captain Mason Jobst, who was lost for the season, along with Cooper Marody and Jack Rowe, who are out for several weeks.
But the team has an abundance of talented forwards, like Paulovic, to pick up the slack. They proved they could do it by gaining three out of four possible points last weekend in two games against Tri-City.
“We need (Rowe and Marody) to get back, but now we see we can still win against good teams,” Paulovic said. “It should work out fine. We were working hard, playing good defense.”
Paulovic has always had a knack for putting the puck in the net.
His best numbers were in 2009-10, when he had 17 goals and 16 assists for an Under-18 squad in his native Slovakia, and 2010-11, when he notched 33 goals and 29 assists.
Paulovic came to North America in 2013 and started last season with Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League.
But he was unhappy with the amount of ice time he was getting, and told his agent he wanted a change of scenery. He ended up with the Lumberjacks around midseason and scored six goals and 10 assists in 29 games.
He says Muskegon was exactly what he was looking for.
“I like it a lot,” said Paulovic, who stays with Randy and Debbie Dahlquist of Norton Shores. “I’m getting ice time, I like the coaches, we have a good team and I like the guys.”
The Lumberjacks are 9-4-1 on the season, good for 19 points and second place in the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference. They trail first-place Cedar Rapids (12-1) by five points.
They played two intense games last weekend against Tri-City, with both going to overtime shootouts.
On Friday the Lumberjacks blew a pair of two-goal leads and ended up losing 5-4. Matheson Iacopelli paced Muskegon with two goals while Paulovic and Griffen Molino each had one.
On Saturday the Jacks rebounded with a 3-2 victory. Molino and DeMontis scored regulation goals while David Keefer and Christian Wolanin notched the game winners in the shootout.
Krygier was very happy with the effort and result, particularly coming in the wake of the injuries.
“Even with the two leads we lost (Friday), the guys played hard,” Krygier said. “Tri-City is a really good team. I thought it was a real good matchup both games.
“Our guys stepped up. Our top two lines performed very well, our role players did a great job, (goalie Eric Schierhorn) was fantastic in net and the defense was really solid. I think those were some of the best games we’ve played defensively.”
The Lumberjacks will return to action Saturday with a home game against Bloomington at 7:15 p.m. On Sunday they will travel to Ann Arbor to face the Team USA Under-18 squad.
If it’s not one thing …
Krygier said Rowe and Marody are probably about a week away from rejoining the lineup.
In the meantime, the Lumberjacks have a new problem – some sort of illness that’s been going around the team and keeping players off the ice.
It’s “very likely” that Lumberjack fans will seem some new faces on the ice on Saturday, filling in for sick players, according to Krygier.
“Half of the team is sick,” Krygier said. “It’s some kind of bug or flu. It’s crazy. I don’t know who’s going to play this weekend. One kid we just called up (Jacob Coleman) is not going to be able to play this weekend. We’re going down our affiliate list, just trying to find players to fill in the holes.”