By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – A little over a year ago, the Muskegon Lumberjacks took the ice for the final game of the regular season in front of a big home crowd.
The Jacks fell behind 3-0, fought back to tie the game, then lost 4-3. They finished in fifth place, one painful point out of the playoffs.
Forward to this weekend, when the Jacks again have a chance to clinch a playoff berth at home. There’s a lot less pressure this time around, because there are seven games left in the regular season and the Lumberjacks have a comfortable 11-point lead over fifth-place Bloomington and Chicago.
Their magic number is four points, which means two wins in three games over the weekend would seal the deal. The Lumberjacks host Des Moines on Friday and Saturday night at 7:15 p.m., then will travel to Ann Arbor to play Team USA’s elite Under-18 squad on Sunday.
One victory over the weekend, combined with one loss by Bloomington and Chicago, would also do the trick.
The regular season ends Saturday April 11 and the first round of the playoffs begin the following week.
“Obviously it’s a good feeling being in control of our own destiny and not having to leave it in somebody else’s hands, but we haven’t accomplished anything yet,” said Lumberjacks captain Christian Wolanin. “This is an exciting time of the year for any hockey player, with the playoffs right around the corner, but we’re trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
While Wolanin remains cautious, he admits it would be exciting to clinch a playoff berth at home after coming so close last year. The Lumberjacks just completed a month long, six-game road trip, and they’re eager to give their local fans something to celebrate.
“It’s been quite a grind, mentally and physically,” Wolanin said. “It’s been really draining. We’re excited about being back at home this weekend, for sure. Any time you can clinch a playoff spot is a huge thing, but to be able to do it on home ice would be awesome.”
Wolanin said the players have noticed the significantly larger crowds at recent home games, and are hoping for two more big turnouts this weekend.
“We do notice that kind of stuff and we appreciate the support a lot,” he said.
The Jacks, who are in third place with a 31-18-4 record, put themselves in a position to secure a playoff spot with a pair of big wins last weekend in Green Bay.
On Friday the Jacks trailed by one goal in the final seconds of regulation, before Matheson Iacopelli scored with 1.3 seconds left to tie the score at 2-2.
Then Juraj Mily and Griffen Molino scored during the overtime shootout, giving Muskegon a thrilling 3-2 victory.
Matej Paulovic scored the other goal for the Lumberjacks.
On Saturday, Ryan Siroky’s game-winning power play goal halfway through the third period propelled the Lumberjacks to a 3-1 victory to complete the two-game sweep.
Robbie DeMontis and Wolanin scored the other goals for Muskegon.
Goalie Eric Schierhorn got the victory in both games, stopping 33 shots on Friday and 24 on Saturday. On Monday he was named the USHL’s Co-Goaltender of the Week, the third time he’s earned the honor this season.
“For some reason there didn’t seem to be any doubt on our bench that we would at least tie it,” Wolanin said about Friday’s dramatic win. “That was a big character win. We knew we were the better team and we knew we had to get those four points (for two victories). We weren’t going to be stopped short of that.”
The victories may have been a signal that the Lumberjacks are starting to gel, after playing .500 hockey for the previous two weeks. It could also mean that the players are building chemistry, following a flurry of recent acquisitions that brought several new faces into the locker room.
“We had to make moves to have a championship team,” Wolanin said. “We’ve been bringing in skilled, veteran guys and it’s good to have them on our team. When new guys first come along it’s tough to get the chemistry going, but now we have our lines down and things are looking up.
“Our mindset all along has been that anything less than a Clark Cup championship would be a disappointment. That feeling has not left the room, and the new additions to the team have only helped us focus on that goal.”