By Dave Hart
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks have encountered their first real slump of the season.
Heading into last weekend the Jacks had won five of six games, and hadn’t lost more than two in a row all season.
But their winless streak hit three in a row Wednesday with a disappointing 4-2 loss to the Chicago Steel in a special New Year’s Eve game in front of 1,773 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
Muskegon also lost an overtime game to Madison on Monday and a shootout decision to Youngstown last Saturday.
The Lumberjacks dropped to 18-8-3 on the season and remined in second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. Chicago improved to 12-13-2.
“We are not playing as tight as we were before the break,” said Muskegon Coach Todd Krygier. “We played a little too loose defensively and and took a couple of bad penalties. We just need to get some practices in to get back on track.”
It’s no coincidence that the winless streak has come during the absence of Lumberjack star forward Matej Paulovic, who has missed the last three games while competing in an international tournament in Europe.
Paulovic is one of the team’s leading scorers with 9 goals and 18 assists, and is tied for the team lead with a plus-12 rating.
He’s also a member of the “MPM Line,” along with Tom Marchin and Griffen Molino, which had been scoring in bunches in recent weeks. That line has been relatively quiet in Paulovic’s absense.
“We miss Matej and the chemistry, not only on his line but the other lines, due to the shifting we’ve had to do,” said Muskegon Coach Todd Krygier. “But there are no excuses. This is an opportunity for some other guys to step up and get the job done.”
Chicago’s Brendon Kearney opened the scoring at the 18 minute mark of the first to give the Steel a 1-0 lead at the first intermission.
Muskegon’s Jack Rowe tied the game at 1-1 on a rebound in front of the net at the 3:09 mark of the second period. Christian Wolanin and Garrett Hallford picked up assists on the goal.
The Steel regained the lead with a power play tally from John Ernsting at the 9:32 mark of the second period.
Chicago’s Tanner Laczynski added to the lead with an unassisted goal at the 4:15 mark of the third to give the Steel a 3-1 edge.
Muskegon’s David Keefer cut the deficit to 3-2 with a rebound goal from the slot at the 7:13 of the third. Molino and Trevor Hamilton had assists.
Chicago nailed down the victory midway through the final period when Hamilton received a penalty, then the Muskegon bench received a bench minor for “abuse of official.”
The Steel took advantage of the 5-on-3 skater advantage almost immediately when Ernsting scored his second goal to give Chicago its final margin of victory.
Krygier would not say who on the Muskegon bench “abused” the official.
“I am responsible for everything,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s on me.”
The Lumberjacks outshot the Steel 42-32 but were stymied by Chicago goalie Cale Morris. The Steel had two power play goals on six opportunties while the Jacks were 0-for-2 with a man advantage.