By Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks head into the second half of the season this weekend very much in the thick of the USHL’s Eastern Conference playoff race.

The Lumberjacks are currently 16-11-2 on the season, good for 34 points and a fourth-place tie with the Green Bay Gamblers. The top four teams in the Eastern and Western conferences qualify for the Clark Cup playoffs, which take place in April.

The Jacks last made the playoffs in the 2014-15 season, when they advanced to the Clark Cup finals. They did not qualify for the postseason last year.

Muskegon will continue its playoff push with two home games this weekend, against two big Eastern Conference rivals. The Lumberjacks will host the Youngstown Phantoms on Friday night and the first-place Chicago Steel on Saturday. Both games will begin at 7:15 p.m.

They split a pair of games at home last weekend, losing to the Waterloo Black Hawks 3-2 in overtime on Thursday night and defeating the Team USA Under-17 squad by a 3-1 margin on Friday night.

This weekend’s games will be particularly challenging for the Jacks, who have not fared particularly well against Youngstown or Chicago.

The Phantoms have won three of their first five meetings against Muskegon. The last two games ending in overtime, with each squad picking up a win.

Muskegon has only played Chicago once, on Dec. 17 at L.C. Walker Arena, and fell 5-1. The Jacks played that game without leading scorers Collin Adams and Andrei Svechnikov, who were competing in an international tournament in Canada. Both will be in uniform this weekend.

The Lumberjacks are looking forward to seeing if they can fare better against the Steel, who have led the Eastern Conference all season. Chicago has 44 points in the standings, six better than second-place Dubuque.

“We use Chicago as a measuring stick to see where we are as a team,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine. “They play fast-pace and have good team speed, manage the puck well, pass the puck hard and drive to the net strong.”

The Jacks will have the advantage of playing 18 of their final 31 regular season games at home, but their schedule will be tough, with 23 of their remaining games coming against teams with records above .500. Only three of their remaining opponents on the schedule have fewer points in the standings than Muskegon.

Lumberjacks score a lot, give up a lot of goals

Muskegon has lit the lamp 90 times this season, which is the third highest total in the USHL, behind Chicago (100 goals) and Dubuque (95 goals).

A disproportionate number of those goals game in two games when they combined for 15 goals – a 7-3 win over Bloomington in September and an 8-2 victory over Omaha in November.

The Lumberjacks have scored an average of 3.10 goals per game. They average 2.75 goals a game at the L.C. Walker Arena and 3.35 on the road.

Overall the Jacks have accumulated 235 points as a team, with 145 assists to go with the 90 goals.

Adams (30 points), Svechnikov (27 points) and Bo Hanson (22 points) have accounted for 79 on those points, which is 33 percent of the team’s production.

Adams in third in the USHL scoring race, three points behind the leader, Fargo’s Jack Adams. Svechnikov is seventh in the overall scoring race, and is the top scorer among USHL rookies.

While the team’s overall goal-scoring total is good news, the Lumberjacks’ have not been as effective when it comes to preventing goals. They have allowed 86, the fifth highest total in the league.

Muskegon’s two goaltenders, Keith Petruzzelli and Adam Brizgala, have both had their ups and downs this season.

Petruzzelli ranks 16th among USHL goalies with a 2.55 goals against average. He has a 10-6 record in 18 games and has given up 43 goals and made 489 saves.

Brizgala is 20th in the league with a 3.18 goals against average. He is 6-5 in 14 games and has given up 40 goals and made 258 saves.

Lincoln’s Yosef Korenar is the currently the top goalie in the USHL with a 1.77 GAA.

LaFontaine said the Jacks will be focusing on improving their defensive play, rather than directly addressing their need for increased offensive production beyond the top three scorers.

“If we improve on the defensive side it should be natural that secondary scoring will follow,” LaFontaine said. “This league is not considered a high-scoring league. Teams play strong defense and are pretty equally matched.”

Jacks trade Timmons to Cedar Rapids

The Lumberjacks announced Wednesday that they have traded forward Jordan Timmons to the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders along with a ninth-round, Phase One draft pick in exchange for a fourth round, Phase One draft pick.

Timmons was the Lumberjacks’ top selection in the league’s Phase Two draft last spring. He appeared in 19 games this season, totaling one goal and nine points. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound winger is tied for 17th among USHL rookies in scoring.

Timmons got out to a fast start this season, but had been pointless since November 20th, and notched just a single assist over his last seven games. Timmons has been a healthy lineup scratch for the past four games.