By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks are closing in on a playoff berth.
In some USHL cities, that’s routine news. In Muskegon it’s a pretty big deal.
The Lumberjacks, in their fifth season in the league, have only qualified for the playoffs twice, in the 2010-11 and 2012-13 seasons. The first time they advanced to the second round while in 2013 they were eliminated in the first round.
Last season the Jacks made a late push for the playoffs, but lost the last game of the regular season and finished one point out of the postseason picture.
But the situation is much better this season.
The Jacks are 2-2 on their current six-game road trip following a 9-2 victory in Chicago last Friday and a last second 4-3 loss in Bloomington on Saturday.
That leaves them 29-18-4 on the season and tied with Dubuque for third place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.
The Lumberjacks and Dubuque both have 62 points in the standings, while fifth-place Chicago has 55. The top four teams in the conference make the playoffs, which means Muskegon and Dubuque are in pretty good shape.
Muskegon and Chicago both have nine games left in the regular season. If the Jacks go 5-4 the rest of the way, which is a reasonable expectation, they would end up with at least 72 points, plus any points they might collect for overtime losses.
That would mean Chicago would have to win all nine of its games to finish with 73 points. That would be a stretch.
“We’re in very good shape mathematically,” said Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck. “Each year it’s a big deal. The way the playoffs are set up, only 50 percent of the teams make it, which may be the toughest percentile in sports.
“We understand what it is and we’re humbly going about our business to get to the finish line.”
Vanbiesbrouck said he’s particularly proud that the Lumberjacks have maintained their playoff pace despite a brutal schedule. Playing 15 of the last 20 regular season games on the road would be a huge challenge for any team.
“We looked at the end of the schedule and said ‘Oh, oh, we’d better build ourselves a good base (of points in the standings)'” he said. “The guys have done that. I’m proud of their effort, and I’m proud of the coaching staff and the way we’ve been prepared to play.
“We’re going to be a dangerous team in the playoffs. We have good goaltending, good defensemen and good forwards. We’re pretty balanced.”
It’s hard to tell who the Lumberjacks might face in the first round of the playoffs, provided they make it. The first and fourth place teams in the conference will square off, as well as the second and third place teams.
Youngstown leads the Eastern Conference with 71 points, followed by Cedar Rapids with 70, then Muskegon and Dubuque. The fight for first place and third place is likely to go down to the final games of the season.
The standings in the Western Conference are similarly bunched at the top, with Tri-City in first place with 70 points, followed by Sioux City with 69, Omaha with 65 and Sioux Falls with 59. Des Moines is in fifth with 54 points.
Muskegon will wrap up its road trip with games in Green Bay against the Gamblers on Friday and Saturday night. They will return home to L.C. Walker Arena for two games against Des Moines the following weekend.