By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – The challenges keep coming for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

In October the team was hit by three serious injuries that sidelined key players Mason Jobst, Jack Rowe and Cooper Marody for several weeks.

In December they lost three other top players – goalie Eric Schierhorn, Matej Paulovic and Christian Wolanin – to elite international tournaments for several weeks.

And now, just as the roster was starting to get healthy and players were returning from tournaments, they’ve temporarily lost three players due to league suspensions.

One affected player is Paulovic, who has already missed the past four games while playing for the Slovakian national team in the World Junior Championships.

He’s back in town and ready to play, but will have to miss Friday’s home game against Madison due to a one-game suspension he received Dec. 13 for “an accumulation of 10-minute misconducts,” according to Muskegon Coach Todd Krygier.

Also missing will be forward Griffen Molino, who was suspended three games for making “contact to the head” of an opponent in the Dec. 31 game against Chicago. He has already missed one game and will sit out both home games this weekend.

Paulovic and Molino, two of the team’s three leading scorers, form two-thirds of the Lumberjacks’ ”MPM Line,” which also includes forward Tom Marchin, the other leading scorer.

The three have combined for 31 goals, 55 assists and 86 total points, which is about one-third of the Lumberjacks’ total offensive output this season.

The latest player to be suspended is forward Steven Merl, who was also whistled for “contact to the head” in a Jan. 3 game against Chicago. He will miss the next five games.

The Lumberjacks had two other suspensions earlier in the season – Keegan Ward for four games and Marchin for one.

“That’s what the refs called, head contact on both of them,” said Krygier, regarding the Molino and Merl suspensions. “Safety has to be an issue, and the league felt as though safety was an issue with the Molino and Merl hits.

“It was hard to see on video, but they have hearings to deal with this kind of stuff.”

Haunted by penalties

The Lumberjacks have been haunted by penalties all season, and particularly in the past four games, when they have encountered their first real slump of the season.

In those four games they’ve had 10 power play opportunities, compared to 16 for opposing teams. Over the season they’ve had 108 power play chances, compared to 136 for opponents.

The Jacks are second in the 17-team league with 639 penalty minutes, behind Dubuque (654) and ahead of Des Moines (612).

Krygier, who has been openly critical of referee’s calls in the past, said his team plays an aggressive style of hockey that sometimes results in penalties.

He also said the team is working on adjusting its play to avoid getting so many penalties.

“We are playing a very aggressive, hard-nosed style of hockey, and when you play that way there will be penalties,” Krygier said. “We’re trying to adjust, but we don’t want to change our style of play, because it works. We just have to be more careful about following through with checks. Even if a kid has his head down, you have to be careful not to hit that kid.”

Lumberjacks update

The Lumberjacks are currently 18-9-3 at the midpoint of the season. They lost both of their games last week, 4-2 at home against Chicago on Wednesday and 3-2 in Chicago on Saturday.

The two losses, combined with overtime losses (each of them good for one point in the standings) in the previous two games, have resulted in the Jacks’ longest winless streak of the season. Their prior low point came in early October when they lost back-to-back games in Cedar Rapids.

After a long run in second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, they Lumberjacks have fallen to third with 39 points, one point behind second-place Dubuque and five points behind first-place Cedar Rapids. The top four teams in the conference qualify for the Clark Cup playoffs.

The Jacks will host Madison Friday and Saturday at 7:15 p.m. each night.

New kids on the block

The Lumberjacks have made several personnel moves in the last few weeks to shore up their roster.

They acquired two forwards with histories of putting the puck in the net – Max Humitz, who comes from the Lincoln Stars in exchange for a draft pick, and Juraj Mily, who comes to Muskegon following his release from a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Humitz is a USHL veteran, playing parts of the past three seasons with Lincoln and totaling 13 goals and 27 assists in that span. He had three goals and six assists in 27 games this season.

Mily, a native of Slovakia and a first-round draft pick of the Arcadie-Bathurst squad in the Quebec league last year, had one goal this season while getting little ice time. Over the past three seasons he collected 75 goals and 84 assists while playing in Slovakian junior programs.

The Lumberjacks also acquired defenseman Adrian Sloboda, another Slovakian who had been playing with the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey League. He’s a stay-at-home defenseman who recorded six assists in 45 games for Ottawa last season.

To make room on the roster, Muskegon traded defenseman David Trinkberger to the Sioux City Musketeers and released defenseman Ryker Killins.

Battle of the backup goalies is over

Lumberjack fans may have noticed that the team now has only two goalies, after several months of carrying three.

The team started the season with two netminders – Schierhorn and backup Michael Latorella. They brought in another backup, Jacob Gwillim, in October, and declared an open competition between Latorella and Gwillim.

Gwillim is no longer on the team. Krygier said Latorella kept his job with his outstanding performance in November and December while filling in for Schierhorn, who suffered a minor concussion, then left to play in a tournament in Canada.

Latorella won four of five games while filling in and posted one shutout.

“He’s been doing fantastic,” said Krygier, who said he expects Latorella to be the starting goalie next season after Schierhorn has exhausted his eligibility. “He’s the youngest goalie in the league, he’s 16, and when he came here I think there was a transition period.

“We knew the talent he had. But all of the sudden he was away from home and had to adjust to school, hockey, travel. The transition wasn’t going smoothly at first, but since then I think he’s matured not only as a goalie but as a person.”