By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – Nobody can accuse the Muskegon Lumberjacks of giving up Friday night.
But a loss is still a loss, and the Jacks now have four of them in a row, their longest slump of the season.
The Lumberjacks fell behind first-place Cedar Rapids by two goals in the early going, fought back to tie the game, then ended up on the short end of a 3-2 score in front of 2,654 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
The Lumberjacks are now 26-17-3 on the season and remain in fourth place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. Cedar Rapids improved to 32-15-0 and pulled nine points in front of Muskegon in the standings.
The two teams will have a rematch Saturday in Muskegon at 7:15 p.m.
The four-game losing streak is the second of the season for the Lumberjacks, but it’s worse than the first. The team earned two points in the standings during the prior streak, because two of the losses were in overtime.
No points have been earned in the current slump.
A big part of the problem Friday was Cedar Rapids goalie Ryan Larkin, who stopped 43 of 45 Muskegon shots to collect the win. Larkin was particularly brilliant in the third period, when the Jacks outshot the Roughriders 14-6 but couldn’t get the tying goal.
Cedar Rapids won with only 27 shots on goal.
“I thought our guys responded well, but you can’t give up two goals in the first few minutes and expect to win,” said Lumberjacks Assistant Coach Todd Robinson. “The guys battled through and did everything they could but we didn’t get the outcome we wanted.
“Two goals isn’t going to get it done. At the end of the day our core guys have to get it done for us, and we need to get some pucks in the net, or we’re going to be in trouble.”
The opening minutes of the game were depressing for the Lumberjacks.
Cedar Rapids’ Ross Colton scored an unassisted goal at 4:40 of the first period, putting the Roughriders up 1-0. Then his teammate Joe Wegwerth made it 2-0 a mere 17 seconds later.
But the Jacks didn’t fold up the tent. They kept attacking, outshooting the Roughriders 19-8 in the first period, and creating opportunities for themselves.
Muskegon got on the board at 8:17 of the first period when Matheson Iacopelli scored from close range, lifting a wrist shot past Larkin. Joseph Cecconi and newcomer Ryan Siroky, who was acquired from Bloomington earlier this week, had the assists.
Matej Paulovic tied the score 2-2 at the 16:08 mark of the first period with a power play goal, which was assisted by Iacopelli and Trevor Hamilton.
Cedar Rapids went back on top 3-2 at 4:20 of the second period when Erik Foley took a centering pass from Colton and got the puck past Muskegon goalie Eric Schierhorn.
The Lumberjacks dodged a potential bullet late in the second period when they were called for their first penalty of the game.
The Jacks’ penalty killing unit, which has struggled in recent weeks, kept the Roughriders from taking advantage of the power play.
Cedar Rapids had a 16-12 shot advantage in the middle period.
The Lumberjacks dominated play in the first six minutes of the third period, holding the puck in the Cedar Rapids zone and outshooting the visitors 6-0. But nothing went in the Roughrider goal.
The Jacks got a final opportunity to tie the game when Cedar Rapids was called for a tripping penalty at 15:36 of the final period. They came close a few times, but again failed to score.