By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Penalties have affected a lot of Muskegon Lumberjacks games lately, and usually not in a good way.
Saturday night’s game was a good example. The Jacks were down 2-0 to Madison after two periods, then got a goal from Christian Wolanin to pull within one.
Unfortunately Matej Paulovic, back from a five-game absence (four for an international tournament and one for a league suspension) drew a five-minute major penalty for kneeing an opponent late in the third period.
The Lumberjacks killed off the long penalty, but there was only a minute left by the time the teams were once again at even strength. Madison escaped with a 2-1 victory.
As it turns out, the penalty bug is far worse for the Lumberjacks when certain referees work their games.
Through the first 30 games of the season (the Jacks have now played 32) the Lumberjacks had 108 power play opportunities, compared to 136 for their opponents., according to information available at USHL.com.
That means opponents have had at least a one-skater advantage 28 more times than the Jacks this season. That has led to a 39-26 deficit in power play goals for Muskegon.
One group of referees, for whatever reason, is responsible for most of that deficit.
For instance, opponents have had eight more power plays than the Lumberjacks in the three games that referee Matt Miller has worked. The same is true for Lucas Martin (seven more power plays for opponents in three games), Andy Howard (-5 in three games), Peter Sclittenhardt (-5 in three games), Cory Denback (-4 in one game) and Ryan Monahan (-4 in three games).
Collectively opponents had 32 more power plays than Muskegon in the 15 games those referees worked.
Then there’s the other group.
One of those refs, Brett Derosier, has awarded opponents three more power plays than the Lumberjacks in the two games he’s worked. But the rest have not been hard on the Jacks at all.
Referee Andrew Bruggman has allowed Muskegon two more power plays in the three games he’s worked. Walker Holton is plus-three for the Jacks in two games, Sean Fernandez is plus-one in two games, while Korey Chippenfield and Cam Lynch are plus-one in one game apiece.
Anthony Falette and Jon Sitarski have each allowed an even number of power plays for the Jacks and their opponents in two games apiece.
Collectively the second group gave the Lumberjacks five more power plays than opponents in the 15 games they worked.
Minus-32 for one group and plus-five for the other. Go figure.
League offers a very pointed ‘no comment’
Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck declined to comment on the power play statistics or the performance of the referees.
When contacted by Local Sports Journal regarding the statistical discrepancy, USHL spokesman Brian Werger responded with the following email:
“I really don’t understand your story angle here. If a team takes a penalty, the referee is going to call it. Just because they have fewer or more power plays than the other team doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Nowhere in the rulebook does it say teams are supposed to have the same amount of power plays each game.
“It appears you are taking a real targeted approach here by naming specific referees, and we have no interest in commenting on or being part of a story that makes it a personal issue with specific referees.”
It should be noted that the referees wear their names on the backs of their jerseys, just like the players, and their performance is subject to public scrutiny, just like the players and coaches.
Obviously the USHL is a development league for up-and-coming refs, just like it is for the players. Nobody is accusing anybody of being purposefully unfair.
But if league officials are going to invite the public and sell tickets, they shouldn’t be surprised or offended when the public notices obvious trends and offers comments.
The Lumberjacks are 19-10-3, good for 41 points and third place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. They are one point behind second-place Dubuque and seven points behind conference leading Cedar Rapids.
They played one of their most exciting games of the season Friday, rallying from a two-goal deficit to force overtime, and then winning 5-4 in a marathon 13-round overtime shootout. Defenseman Adrian Sloboda scored the game-winning goal for Muskegon in the shootout.
The victory broke a two-game losing streak and four-game winless streak for the Lumberjacks.
The Jacks will travel to Omaha for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday night, then return home on Monday for a special 12:15 p.m. puck drop against the Bloomington Thunder.
The Monday game will be played in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Children ages 3-12 will receive a free ticket to the game upon entry into the L.C. Walker Arena.
Paulovic suspended again
The Lumberjacks played without Paulovic last Friday, and without forwards Griffen Molino and Steven Merl on Friday and Saturday.
Paulovic was serving a one-game suspension for having too many misconduct penalties this season. Molino was serving a three-game suspension for having contact with an opponent’s head while Merl got a five-game suspension for the same offense.
Molino will return to the lineup Friday night in Omaha, but Paulovic will be serving another one-game suspension for the kneeing incident last weekend. Merl will remain out of action for three more games.
Another trade for a forward
The Lumberjacks have made a slew of trades in the past few weeks, and they’ve been paying off.
They recently obtained Sloboda and forwards Juraj Mily and Max Humitz. All three collected a goal and an assist in Friday’s victory over Madison, and Mily and Sloboda played heroic roles by scoring goals in the 13-round shootout.
Now the Lumberjacks have added another forward in an effort to spark their offense, which has been struggling to score a lot lately.
On Wednesday the team acquired Mark Petaccio from the Des Moines Buccaneers in exchange for second- and tenth-round picks in the 2015 USHL Phase II Draft.
Petaccio, the Sicklerville, New Jersey native, recorded 10 goals and 16 assists in 28 games this season with the Buccaneers. He spent the 2013-14 season with the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Central Canada Hockey League, totaling 43 goals and 46 assists in 65 games played.
Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier called the 6-4, 205-pound Petaccio a “top player in the league” and said the team is determined to “do everything we can to be successful and win.”
“We really needed to get better in our top nine forwards,” said Krygier, whose team has scored two goals or less in five of its last six games.
Krygier said the Lumberjacks’ top scoring line of Molino, Paulovic and Tom Marchin will remain intact when they are all back in the lineup. Petaccio will play on the second line with Matheson Iacopelli and Robbie DeMontis. Mily, Humitz and Jack Rowe will comprise the third line while Will Graber, David Keefer and Keegan Ward will man the fourth.
To make room on the roster for Petaccio, the Lumberjacks returned Garrett Hallford to his former team in the North American Hockey League.