By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – The past six weeks have been pretty challenging for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

They’ve been on the road for 8 of their past 10 games, dating back to Nov. 18. During that span the Jacks posted a less-than-spectacular 4-6 record and were outscored 36-29, with eight of their goals coming in one game.

They have also been without their two top scorers – Collin Adams and Andrei Svechnikov – for the past three games. The Jacks won two of those contests, but are clearly better with the two talented forwards in the lineup.

The good news is that things are about to change. The Jacks are going to be playing at home a lot more over the next two months, and Adams and Svechnikov are back.

The Lumberjacks will be home for 14 of their next 21 games, beginning this week and extending through February.

That will include home games this Thursday against Waterloo and Friday against the Team USA Under-17 squad (puck drop for both games is 7:15 p.m.), followed by six different weekends in January and February when they will have back-to-back home games on Friday and Saturday.

Before any of that begins, the Jacks will play Tuesday night in Youngstown, Ohio against the Phantoms.

On paper, having more home games may not seem like a big deal for the Lumberjacks. They are 15-11 overall, with a 6-4 record at L.C. Walker Arena and a good 9-7 mark on enemy ice.

But Coach John LaFontaine says it will be good for the team to be playing at home on a regular basis, instead of enduring so many long bus trips to cities in distant states.

“You have to love to play at home,” he said. “You’ve got to protect your home ice, be proud of it and play better there. But everything is still tough, every game. We’re going to play teams at their best every night. There are no nights off.”

LaFontaine said all the travel obviously wore on his team a bit in recent weeks.

“I think we did hit a stretch like that,” he said. “You can see it in their legs and eyes. (The coaches) had to back off a little bit just so the guys could get their legs back.”

Adams, Svechnikov back to power the Jacks

Adams and Svechnikov, both National Hockey League prospects, participated in the World Junior “A” Challenge tournament in Bonnyville, Alberta from Dec. 11-17. The tournament featured many of the best amateur players in the world.

They both turned in great performances.

Andrei Svechnikov

Svechnikov broke the tournament record for goals with eight, tied the tournament record for points with 12, and scored a hat trick for Russia in the bronze medal game.

At 16, he became the youngest player ever to be named the Most Valuable Player of the World Junior “A” Challenge.

Adams helped the USA squad win the gold medal by notching two goals and two assists, including one goal in the 4-0 gold medal game victory over Canada East.

The two teammates were adversaries in the tournament semifinals, when the USA squad beat Russia 4-2. Adams scored once in that game while Svechnikov scored both of his team’s goals.

Collin Adams

While LaFontaine was proud of how his stars performed on the international stage, he said he will be will more than happy to have them back.

“Every time they are on the ice the other team has to put its best line against them,” said LaFontaine, who added that he plans to keep Adams and Svechnikov on the same line for the foreseeable future. “They are a threat every time they are on the ice.”

Adams leads the Lumberjacks with 15 goals and 12 assists for 27 points in 23 games. Svechnikov is second with 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points in only 17 games.

Adams is tied for second in the USHL scoring race with Sioux City’s Eili Tolvanen. Fargo’s Jack Adams is first with 31 points (18 goals, 13 assists).

Svechnikov is tied with three other players for fourth place in the league scoring race. He is the top scorer among USHL rookies, three points ahead of second-place Casey Mittelstadt of Green Bay.

Adams and Svechnikov have scored 25 of the Lumberjacks’ 80 goals, which is nearly one-third. That kind of dependence on only two players can be unhealthy for a team, but LaFontaine thinks other scorers are ready to heat up.

“We’re always looking for depth and guys to develop and pick up that slack,” he said. “We’ve got some guys who are starting to turn that corner. We feel like, in the second half, some guys will play with a lot more confidence.”

The race for the playoffs

The Lumberjacks are starting the new year in good position to challenge for a postseason playoff spot. The top four teams in both the USHL’s Eastern and Western Conference qualify for the playoffs, which begin in April.

The Lumberjacks are currently in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 30 points, only one point behind fourth-place Green Bay. Chicago leads the conference with 39 points, followed by Dubuque (34) and Youngstown (33).

Bloomington is in sixth place with 25 points, followed by Team USA (20 points), Madison (20) and Cedar Rapids (8).

LaFontaine is obviously happy to be in the thick of the playoff picture, but is definitely not overconfident.

“I don’t think you can ever get too comfortable in this league,” he said. “You can have a downturn quickly. It’s all about getting better every week and coming together as a team at the right time. Hopefully in the second half of the season we will do that.”