By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – With three-newly acquired players in the lineup, two key players gone following trades, and a three-game losing streak, a victory didn’t seem likely for the Muskegon Lumberjacks on Friday.
But two solid players who haven’t been traded came through when the game was on the line.
The first was goalie Joey Daccord, who recorded one big save after another when the game was tied or the Lumberjacks trailed.
The second was forward Matej Paulovic, who scored the go-head goal and an insurance goal in the third period.
It all added up to a much-needed 6-3 victory for the Lumberjacks over the Bloomington Thunder in front of 2,225 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
The Lumberjacks, who remain in last place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, improved to 15-16-4 on the season. Bloomington, the fourth-place team in the conference, dropped to 21-13-4.
“It feels good, especially against an outstanding hockey team that’s doing good right now,” said Muskegon Coach Todd Krygier.
“Nothing has really galvanized this team yet. They haven’t really come together and played for each other yet, but I thought I saw some really good signs tonight. We traded some good players – no discredit to them – but when a team plays together and does whatever it takes to win (like Friday), that’s how it moves forward and gets more consistency in its game.”
Daccord played a key role throughout the game, stopping 36 of 39 Bloomington shots. Several of his best saves came in desperate situations, when Bloomington repeatedly broke in for 2-on-1 or 3-on-1 breaks after the Lumberjacks suffered defensive breakdowns.
“In the second period he stopped three or four chances that probably should have been goals,” Krygier said of Daccord. “He played an absolutely fantastic game.”
Paulovic, who missed several weeks with an injury around the holidays, picked the perfect time to collect his ninth and tenth goals of the season.
He scored at 5:37 of the third period to give the Lumberjacks a 3-2 lead, then added a goal eight minutes later to put Muskegon up 4-2.
“That’s why he’s here and he’s not going anywhere,” Krygier said of Paulovic. “Simply put, he came up huge.”
The Lumberjacks fell behind early and never led until midway through the third period.
The Thunder opened the scoring just 1:42 into the game with a goal by Valdislav Dzhioshvili.
Muskegon’s Dante Palecco answered with a goal at the 7:51 mark of the first period. Newly-named captain Robbie DeMontis, who replaced the traded Trevor Hamilton, and Graham Lillibridge were credited with assists.
Bloomington regained its lead when Tarek Baker stole the puck in the neutral zone and connected on a breakaway goal at the 14:20 mark of the first period.
The Lumberjacks tied the game at 2-2 with 33 seconds remaining in the second period when Rem Pitlick, the league’s leading scorer, notched his 25th goal of the season. Lillibridge and Collin Adams assisted on the tally.
The Lumberjacks took their first lead 5:37 into the third period when Paulovic won a faceoff in the left circle of Bloomington’s zone, tskated through traffic and snapped the puck home on a power-play opportunity.
Paulovic gave the Jacks a 4-2 lead with his second goal at 13:23 of the third period. Adams picked up the lone assist.
The Thunder responded about two minutes with an unassisted goal from Ryan Brushett.
But the Jacks rolled to the victory from there.
Palecco scored his second goal with 3:36 left in the game on a long shot from just inside the center line that got past Bloomington goaltender Hayden Lavigne. The shot apparently surprised Lavinge, who was just leaving the crease to exit the ice and give the Thunder an extra attacker.
DeMontis iced the win with an empty net goal for the Lumberjacks with 28 seconds left.