By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – Michael Latorella seems to play his best hockey when Eric Schierhorn is not available.

Latorella, one of two backup goalies for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, collected two wins last week when Schierhorn, the starter, was out with an injury.

On Friday he had to fill in again, with Schierhorn in Canada for an international tournament. Latorella answered the call by making 37 saves, including 12 in a dangerous first period, as the Lumberjacks downed Sioux Falls 5-2 in front of 1,335 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.

The Lumberjacks kept their hot streak alive, winning their fourth game in a row and seventh in eight games. They improved their record to 17-6-1, good for 35 points and second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.

Latorella’s heroics were necessary for the Lumberjacks, who were outshot in the game 39-17.

“I just try not to worry about anything or stress,” said Latorella, who had a shutout last weekend. “At the end of the day I am the backup goalie, so I just try to relax and have some fun and do what I can do.”

Latorella’s season has definitely taken a turn for the better in recent weeks. He started the season as the lone backup goalie to Schierhorn, then the Lumberjacks decided to create some competition by adding Jacob Gwillim to the lineup.

But Latorella may have secured the second spot in the pecking order with his performance the past two weeks.

“He’s been making some great saves in pratice – I call them ‘wow’ saves – and he made some of those tonight,” said Muskegon Coach Todd Krygier.

“I think his practice habits have improved. I think he’s just growing up and maturing. The light goes on for different guys at different points of the season. He’s been great. He’s won three in a row.”

The Lumberjacks’ power play unit was also impressive, notching three goals in five opportunities. That’s even more impressive considering Sioux Falls came into the game with the best penalty killing percentage in the league.

Muskegon looked like the better penalty-killing team, holding the Stampede scoreless on five power plays, including two in the first period.

The first period was shaky for the Lumberjacks, who had two minor penalties and were outshot 12-2.

But the penalty killing unit was perfect, and Latorella made several great saves, keeping the game scoreless at the first intermission.

The Lumberjacks came to life in the second period. scoring four goals, including three on the power play.

Griffen Molino started things off just 25 seconds into the period when he found himself with the puck following a Sioux Falls turnover and blasted a shot past Stampede goalie Arthur Brey. Tom Marchin assisted on the goal.

Muskegon’s Ryker Killins scored exactly two minutes later on a power play when he picked up a rebound in the left circle and hit the mark with his shot. Trevor Hamilton and Matej Paulovic were credited with assists.

The Lumberjacks made it 3-0 at the 12:24 mark when Matheson Iacopelli scored on a 5-on-3 power play, after taking a perfect pass from Killins. Paulovic got his second assist on the tally.

Sioux Falls broke the shoutout at 8:15 of the second period with a goal by Chris Pohlkamp.

But Marchin answered for Muskegon at 16:16 when he picked up a rebound in front of the net and poked it past Brey. Killins had an assist on the goal.

Sioux Fall’s Kieffer Bellows made the score 4-2 with a goal midway through the third period, then Jack Rowe sealed the victory for the Lumberjacks with an empty-net goal with a little over a minute left in the contest.