By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – Muskegon Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier always says his objective is to have his team playing its best hockey at playoff time.
But the Jacks still have a long way to go before they can dream of bringing home the Clark Cup. Their next challenge is the Eastern Conference finals against the Dubuque Fighting Saints, a talented and playoff-tested team.
Games 1 and 2 are Friday and Saturday in Dubuque, respectively, with puck drop at 8:05 p.m. EST on Friday and 8:35 EST on Saturday. Game 3 will be in Muskegon on Friday, May 1 at 7:15 p.m.
Game 4, if necessary, would be Saturday, May 2 in Muskegon. Game 5, if necessary, would be back in Dubuque on Tuesday, May 5.
The winner of the series will advance to the Clark Cup finals against the winner of the Western Conference finals – either Tri-City or Sioux Falls.
Krygier said it will be important for the Lumberjacks to get a victory in Dubuque this weekend, preferably right away.
“Friday night is the night to win, it’s just that simple,” he said.
The Lumberjacks stunned the United States Hockey League by beating Youngstown, the regular season league champion, in the first round of the playoffs, three games to one.
The series couldn’t have been more dramatic, with two of the four games going to overtime, and one of those going two overtimes. The Jacks trailed in all four games, yet found a way to rally and win three.
Muskegon clinched the series with a dramatic 4-2 victory at home on Monday, despite falling behind 1-0 in the first few minutes of the game.
Before the series, Krygier admitted he wasn’t sure if his team could beat the Phantoms. By the time it was over, he was a believer.
“I thought we showed we could come back,” Krygier said. “We showed we could execute our game plan and have success. We played hard and smart and got the result we wanted. Those were the most intense, fastest games we’ve played all season.”
Krygier said strong defense worked in the Lumberjacks’ favor. The Phantoms featured several big scorers, but the Lumberjacks neutralized the threat, holding Youngstown to 11 goals in four games, including just three in the final two games.
“We tried to control the gaps in the neutral zone and make sure they were not getting through with their speed, and there were very few times they were able to do that,” Krygier said. “We also played well in our own zone.”
Krygier also tipped his hat to Lumberjacks goalie Eric Schierhorn, who had a great series. He was particularly brilliant in Game 3 in Youngstown, stopping 44 of 45 shots in the double-overtime victory.
“I’ve been saying how good he is for the last year and a half,” Krygier said. “I think he’s the best goalie in the league. He gives us a chance to win every game.”
Now comes Dubuque, a team that’s advanced to the conference finals four straight years.
The season series between Muskegon and Dubuque has been dead even, with each team winning two games. The Lumberjacks were 1-1 in Dubuque, while the Fighting Saints were 1-1 in Muskegon.
Dubuque outscored Muskegon 13-12 in the four games.
The Fighting Saints will bring a different sort of challenge for the Lumberjacks.
While Youngstown featured a lot of individual firepower, with five players among the league’s top 25 scorers, Dubuque had only one – Seamus Malone – who tied for 11th with 26 goals and 32 assists for 58 points.
The Lumberjacks had two players in the top 25 – Griffen Molino (18 goals, 46 assists for 64 points, tied for fourth place in the league) and Matej Paulovic (17 goals, 33 assists for 50 points, tied for 20th).
But that doesn’t mean the Fighting Saints can’t score. They were one of only six teams in the league to tally more than 200 goals in the regular season (207). Muskegon finished with 184.
While Youngstown operated with two good goalies sharing time, Dubuque relies on standout Jacob Nehama, who finished second in the league in the regular season with a 2.31 goals against average.
Schierhorn, the Lumberjacks’ goalie, finished ninth in the league with a 2.51 GAA.
The Fighting Saints are also tough to beat in their own building. They tied for second in the league in the regular season with 22 home victories, while Muskegon had 19.
They are also the most penalized team the league, by far. Dubuque players spent 1,327 minutes in the penalty box in the regular season, which was 134 more than Madison, the runner-up.
Muskegon totaled 1,107 penalty minutes.
“Dubuque plays a better team game (than Youngstown),” Krygier said. “They don’t rely on individuals as much as they play as a team. We have to adapt to that style, rather than pick up a few top guys and shut them down.
“We have to play well defensively, and at the same time take away their opportunity to play well defensively, and we have a strategy to do that.”