By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – In playoff hockey, a team’s ability to overcome a bad game or bad period can make all the difference.
The Jacks were clobbered in Games 2 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Dubuque, with the low point coming a week ago in a 6-0 loss to the Fighting Saints at home.
That depressing loss left the series tied at two games apiece, and the Jacks had to take a long trip west to Dubuque for a decisive Game 5.
To make matters worse, the team showed signs of mental fatigue toward the end of that loss, collecting 54 minutes worth of penalties in the third period alone, including three 10-minute misconducts.
A lot of people thought they were toast.
But the Lumberjacks rose to the occasion again, gaining a quick lead in Dubuque on Tuesday night, then hanging on for a 4-3 victory and the conference title.
Now the Jacks are hosting Game 1 of the Clark Cup finals tonight at 7:15 p.m. against Sioux Falls, presumably with a great deal of confidence. Game 2 will be Sunday at home at the same time, while Game 3 will be next Friday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Game 4, if necessary, would be Sunday May 17 in Sioux Falls, while Game 5, if necessary, would be Wednesday May 20 in Muskegon.
So how did the Jacks pull themselves back together after last Saturday’s drubbing, and manage to get the big win on the road?
“Going into the fifth game, we didn’t do any videos, we didn’t have any meetings,” said Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier. “The guys knew exactly how they had to play. When they did it we were successful and when they didn’t do it we were unsuccessful.”
The Lumberjacks led the game 4-1 after two periods, then held on as the Fighting Saints scored two goals down the stretch and threatened to tie the game as the clock wound down.
“You’re up 4-1 with 10 minutes to go, then they get a power play and score with a wrist shot that could have been caught with no glove on, and it gives them a bit of life,” Krygier said. “Two minutes later they get a similar goal and suddenly the momentum is shifting.
“But the guys held their composure and did what they had to do to get the win. When momentum changes on the road, it’s difficult.”
While a lot of people thought the Jacks’ mental meltdown in Game 4, with all the penalties, was a sign of despair and final defeat, Krygier thought otherwise.
“The simple answer is that they were done that night, they were spent and they were emotional,” the coach said. “They got frustrated and mad and lashed out, and everybody looks at that as not being a good thing. I looked at it like these guys care.
“If they hadn’t come unraveled a bit I knew we would have lost in Dubuque. But they did get upset, which showed that it meant something to them, so they had another chance.”
Now the Lumberjacks will have a chance to win their first Clark Cup against Sioux Falls, the surprise winner of the Western Conference. Like the Lumberjacks, the Stampede finished fourth in their conference and upset the field in the first two rounds to make the finals.
This is the first time two fourth seeds have met in the Clark Cup finals, and will be only the second time a fourth seed has won the cup. The first came in 2004 when Waterloo won it.
Sioux Falls is powered by three scorers who finished among the top 25 in the league in the regular season – former Lumberjack Cooper Marody, Kieffer Bellows and Mikey Eyssimont.
Forward Troy Loggins in leading the league in playoff scoring, with eight goals and five assists in 13 games.
Loggins, Eyssimont, Bellows and Logan O’Connor have scored 26 of their team’s 34 goals in the postseason.
Muskegon and Sioux Falls only played twice this season, with each team winning one game. Their all-time record against each other is 4-4, with four of those games going to overtime.
The L:umberjacks are hoping to get more scoring chances than they did against Dubuque, when they were outshot by the absurd margin of 225-144 in five games.
“Dubuque played a style of play totally different from anyone in our league,” Krygier said. “They just throw pucks at the net, from wherever and whenever. At the end of the day we found a way to win, but at the same time I still feel like we pass up too many scoring chances, trying to make that extra play.”