By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – On the ice, the Muskegon Lumberjacks are doing just fine.
They are 10-5-1, in third place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, only one point behind second-place Dubuque.
The top four teams in each conference make the playoffs, so if the postseason started today, the Jacks would be in.
But the other part of the equation – having big crowds to cheer on the Jacks at home – is another story.
If average attendance counted as the league standings, the Lumberjacks would be way out of the playoff picture. Game attendance at L.C. Walker Arena lags behind most of the league.
The good news is that Lumberjacks fans are going to have a great chance to move up in the “warm seat standings” over the next couple of weeks. After starting the season with several long road trips and sporadic home dates, the Jacks are preparing to play 10 out of their next 13 games on home ice.
It starts on Friday when the Lumberjacks host defending Anderson Cup (regular season) champion Waterloo at 7:15 p.m., then play a rare home Sunday game two days later against Bloomington at 5:15 p.m.
The home stand should help the Lumberjacks build some momentum. They are 5-2-0 at home this season – although they are also a very good 5-3-1 on enemy ice.
The challenge is for the fans to do as well as the team.
The Lumberjacks are averaging 2,029 per game after seven home dates, which ranks 12th out of the 17-team league.
That average was obviously boosted by the 3,296 fans that showed up for the annual morning game on Oct. 29 against Team USA. The last home game, Saturday night against Bloomington, drew 1,798.
The runaway leader is Sioux Falls, which is averaging 6,029 through eight home games. In second place is Madison, which is averaging 3,569, followed by Green Bay (3,434), Fargo (3,186), Omaha (3,020), Lincoln (2,838), Sioux City (2,461), Waterloo (2,343), Cedar Rapids (2,141), Dubuque (2,101), Des Moines (2,098), Muskegon (2,029), Tri-City (1,980), Bloomington (1,764), Chicago (1,159), Youngstown (770) and Ann Arbor-based Team USA (303).
Ironically, having a good team doesn’t equate to good attendance this year in the USHL.
Sioux Falls, the runaway leader in attendance, is 6-7-3 and in fifth place. Madison, the second highest drawing team, is 5-6-3 and in sixth. Green Bay, drawing the third most fans, is 6-8-0 and in seventh place while Fargo, the fourth biggest draw, is 7-7-1 and in fourth.
Meanwhile Cedar Rapids, which is 13-2-0 and in first place, barely averages 2,100 fans. Sioux City, the first-place team in the Western Conference at 11-4-1, is seventh place overall in attendance. Dubuque, 11-3-0 on the ice, is 10th in attendance.
For the Lumberjacks, the biggest concentration of home games this season will be in December, when they will play seven of their eight games at L.C. Walker Arena.
Beyond this weekend, the Jacks are home against Youngstown (Nov. 28), Team USA (Dec. 5-6), Sioux Falls (Dec. 12-13), Chicago (Dec. 19), Youngstown (Dec. 27) and Chicago (New Years Eve).
The Lumberjacks also play seven of their 10 games in January at home.
Paulovic-Marchin-Molino line on fire
The Lumberjacks were worried about their offense when Cooper Marody and Jack Rowe, two high-scoring forwards, were temporarily lost with injuries about two weeks ago.
But the recently formed line of Matej Paulovic, Tom Marchin and Griffen Molino has been picking up the slack – and then some.
The best example came in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Bloomington. The Paulovic-Marchin-Molino trio scored three of the four goals and had five assists. Marchin scored two goals while Molino had three assists.
The three forwards, who have formed a line for about the past week and a half, have combined for nine goals and eight assists over the past five games.
Overall Marchin has seven goals and six assists, Molino has five goals and 10 assists while Paulovic has four goals and eight assists.
“That line is really playing well, they’ve really stepped up,” said Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier.
Defenseman Christian Wolanin also had a hot hand last weekend, scoring a goal in Saturday’s win and Sunday’s 9-3 loss to the Team USA Under-18 squad.
“I truly believe he’s one of the best defensemen in the USHL,” Krygier said of Wolanin. “He’s one of the guys in the league who has huge upside and pro potential.”
Matheson Iacopelli has three goals and two assists in the past five games. He’s tied for the league lead in goals (11) with Jiri Fronk of Cedar Rapids and Brock Boeser of Waterloo, who will join his team in Muskegon on Friday.
On the positive side, Rowe, who has been out of the lineup with a concussion, is practicing with the team and is expected to play this weekend, Krygier said.
But Marody, who suffered a hip injury, could be out another week or more. He’s still recovering from his injury, and now is suffering from the strep infection that’s been going around the Lumberjacks’ locker room for a week.
Some players who were sick last week are feeling better, but others are becoming ill, Krygier said.
“it’s been unbelievable,” said Krygier, whose team has been using several call-up players from lower leagues to replace skaters on the sick list. “It’s kind of continuing right now. Practice will be interesting this week, but we have to get ready for Waterloo.
“We don’t know how it’s all going to play out. We’re taking it day by day.”