By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks’ regular season has to be considered a resounding success.
But in truth it’s been a season full of challenges.
There was the day last fall when the team announced serious injuries to three key players, including captain Mason Jobst, who remains out of action following shoulder surgery.
There was the three-game loss of standout goalie Eric Schierhorn and star defenseman Christian Wolanin, while they played for the United States in the World A Junior Challenge.
There was the five-game loss of high-scoring forward Matej Paulovic, while he played for Slovakia in the World Junior Championships.
There were numerous league suspensions for several Lumberjacks, who tend to play a physical brand of hockey. The team had eight players suspended over the course of the season for a total of 15 games.
There has been a great deal of player turnover. Only 12 players on the 23-man roster started the season with the team.
And there have been a few rough stretches.
After winning their first three games of the season, the Jacks lost three of the next four. There was a four-game winless streak in late December and early January.
There was stretch in February and early March when the team lost five of six, with one of those losses coming in overtime.
So the fact that the Lumberjacks are back in the playoffs, after missing out last year, is a testament to the determination of the players and coaches.
The Lumberjacks will open the Clark Cup playoffs Wednesday at home against Youngstown in the first game of a 3-of-5 quarterfinal series.
Puck drop at L.C. Walker Arena will be 7:15 p.m.
The second and third games will be in Youngstown on Friday and Saturday night. The fourth game, if necessary, would be in Muskegon next Monday, while the fifth game, if necessary. would be in Youngstown on Wednesday April 22.
“Every year is going to bring challenges over a 60-game season,” said Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier. “I’ve been really impressed with the kids we have in the program and how hard they’ve worked. They’ve stayed focused and really competed well.
“We’re really proud of guys like Robbie Demontis – he comes in a young kid and he will leave our program after one more season as a man and go to Yale as a top six forward. We’ve gotten great goaltending from Eric Schierhorn for two straight years. He’s an absolutely fantastic kid with a great attitude, through the ups and downs.
“Then we have a guy like Matheson Iacopelli come in from midget hockey and set a Muskegon goal scoring record. I could go up and down the list, player for player, talking about the quality guys we have and the character they have.”
Kryier said a big key for the team has been drafting or trading for skilled players who are good people, as well.
“That’s always been a goal because who wants to be around people who don’t have character and integrity?” Krygier said. “I have five teenagers at home I have to deal with. I don’t need 23 here that don’t work hard or have an attitude. Life’s too short.”
Prepping for Youngstown
Krygier said he’s been satisfied with the Jacks’ performance over the past few weeks.
The team has posted an 8-5 record since March 1, with a five-game winning streak tucked in the middle.
Only three losses in the last four games cast a shadow on a very good stretch of the season.
“Our power play has been among the top in the league, our penalty kill was over 80 percent again after a lag in the middle of the season, and defensively we’ve worked on shoring some things up,” Krygier said. “So we’re where we need to be and I’m happy where we’re at.”
But that doesn’t mean the coach is predicting a series win over Youngstown, which won the Anderson Cup as the league’s top regular season team.
The Lumberjacks are 2-4 this season against Youngstown. Two of the eight games were decided by overtime shootouts.
The Phantoms have been particularly hot in the second part of the season. Since March 1 they have posted a remarkable 21-1-1 record, highlighted by a 17-game winning streak.
They were 19-13-5 at the end of February, and finished 40-14-6.
Youngstown has plenty of offensive firepower. Kyle Connor finished the season as the league’s leading scorer, while Maxim Lutunov, Josh Melnick, Kiefer Sherwood and Tyler Sheehy all finished in the top 20.
The Phantoms have two great goaltenders – Chris Birdsall (32 games, 2.46 goals against average) and Colin DeAugustine (31 games, 2,68 GAA) who are both ranked in the top 10 in the league.
“I don’t know if we can beat Youngstown,” Krygier said. “I believe we can. But we’ll have to play a lot harder, a lot smarter, and we’ll have to play desperate. They’re the best team in the league.
“If we work hard and play to our potential, I believe we have the opportunity to win that series. But Youngstown is too good to make mental and physical mistakes against.”