By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks weren’t planning on being in the midst of a slump when their long-awaited rematch weekend with Cedar Rapids arrived.
For much of the season, the Lumberjacks were in second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, in hot pursuit of first-place Cedar Rapids.
And the Jacks have been very eager to get another crack at the Roughriders, after losing back-to-back games in Cedar Rapids in October.
But the Lumberjacks, 26-16-3 on the season, have hit a lull, losing the last three games of their recent five-game road trip. Suddenly they’re in fourth place, seven points behind the Roughriders, four behind Youngstown and one behind Dubuque.
The Jacks are hoping to snap out of it this weekend when Cedar Rapids visits L.C. Walker Arena for games on Friday and Saturday night. Puck drop both nights is 7:15 p.m.
“In order to be the best, you have to beat the best,” said Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck. “That’s how we’re looking at it.”
Home games are crucial
Gaining points at home against the Roughriders will be pretty important for the Lumberjacks, due to their remaining schedule.
They have 15 games left in the regular season, with 10 on the road. Following this weekend, the Jacks will embark on a six-game road trip with visits to Sioux City, Bloomington, Chicago and Green Bay.
They won’t play at home again for a month, March 27-28 against Des Moines.
It’s tough to win on the road – Muskegon is 10-9-2 in other cities and 16-7-1 at home – so every point the Jacks can get in their own building is precious.
The Lumberjacks are currently safe in their fourth-place position, since the top four teams in the conference make the playoffs.
But Madison and Bloomington are tied for fifth, eight points (four victories) behind the Jacks, and a prolonged slump could allow either of those teams back into the playoff picture.
It won’t be easy against a Cedar Rapids squad that sports an impressive 17-6-0 road mark. And the task will be even more difficult if the Jacks don’t play better than they have in recent games.
They scored only two goals in a recent loss to Bloomington, and one in a loss to Dubuque last Friday. Other problems have plagued the team, as well.
“Our penalty killing has been miserable the past 10 games or so,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We just can’t seem to finish off a penalty kill. A lot of it is the mental part of the game – getting a stick in the lane in the correct spot, or the body in the correct lane to block a shot.
“We will kill off 1:50 of a penalty, then give up a goal in the last 10 seconds. It’s just a killer.”
Vanbiesbrouck noted that the Roughriders have been in a scoring slump themselves, so the odds this weekend should be evened up a bit.
“You can’t put all the emphasis on two games or one game,” he said. “It’s a game of confidence. When you score a lot and things come easy your confidence gets a boost. But neither team seems to be having much scoring touch lately.”
Jacks acquire another forward
The Lumberjacks made an attempt to address their scoring woes Wednesday by acquiring forward Ryan Siroky from Bloomington in exchange for forward Steven Merl, a third round draft pick and a player to be named later.
Siroky, a third-year USHL veteran who was captain of the Thunder, has 10 goals and 16 assists in 44 games this season. He played the previous two seasons with the Green Bay Gamblers.
Merl had three goals and four assists for the Lumberjacks this season.
“We’re excited about welcoming (Siroky) to our offensive group, and having him help shore up our penalty killing,” Vanbiesbrouck said.