By Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – The recent acquisition of forward Austin Albrecht is paying off for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

The newcomer, who was acquired in a trade with Sioux Falls about three weeks ago, exploded for four goals and one assist last weekend, including three goals on Friday night.

Albrecht’s performance helped the Lumberjacks sweep a two-game road series against the Tri-City Storm and continue their push for a championship in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.

Austin Albrecht

Muskegon blitzed the Storm on Friday, tying a franchise record with nine goals in a 9-1 rout, then blanked the home team 2-0 on Saturday.

The Jacks, 33-17-3 on the season, will return home for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday against the Fargo Force. Puck drop will be 7:15 p.m. both nights.

“I felt that I played pretty well,” said Albrecht, a native of Flemington, New Jersey. “Things are starting to click for me and the team, and hopefully we can keep on rolling.

“The players here are a lot more skilled, which gives me more energy and the ability to focus.”

Albrecht was a big point producer for Sioux Falls before coming to Muskegon, but not so much as a goal scorer. He had five goals and 30 assists in 44 games.

But suddenly he’s putting the puck in the net, which is no surprise to Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine.

Albrecht played for LaFontaine last season in Wichita Falls in the North American Hockey League. He had 26 goals and 34 assists for the Wildcats in 58 regular season games, and helped the team advance all the way to the championship round of the playoffs.

“I love him to death,” LaFontaine said. “He is a hard-working kid who’s committed to getting better, and he’s all about the team. He’s a good fit for this team. The tougher the game, the more he raises his game up a notch.”

Albrecht said he’s excited to reunite with his former coach for another run at a championship, after playing for a team that was near the bottom of the USHL’s Western Conference.

“He is a great man,” said Albrecht about LaFontaine. “He gives everyone a fair shot to play and wants to get to know you as an individual. He’s just a great guy and I hope we can win a Clark Cup for him.”

 Jacks pushing for playoffs, conference title

The Jacks are pursuing two big goals as they head into the final six games of the regular season.

Their most immediate concern is clinching a Clark Cup playoff spot. The top four teams in the Eastern Conference make the playoffs, and the Lumberjacks have a comfortable eight-point lead over fifth-place Green Bay.

Their magic number for clinching a playoff spot is five – a combination of points earned by Muskegon (two points for a win and one for an overtime loss) and points lost by Green Bay.

Two wins this weekend against Fargo, along with one loss by Green Bay, would put the Jacks back in the playoffs for the first time in two years.

The Lumberjacks last made the playoffs in 2015, when they advanced to the Clark Cup finals before losing to Sioux Falls.

Muskegon is also in a tight three-way race for the Eastern Conference championship.

Chicago leads the division with 73 points, followed by the Lumberjacks (70) and Dubuque (69). Chicago will have more opportunities to gain points in the standings with eight games remaining, compared to Muskegon’s six.

After the two home games against Fargo this weekend, the Jacks will close out their home schedule against the Bloomington Thunder on March 31 and Team USA on April 1.

They will finish the regular season on the road, with a big game in Chicago on April 7 and a visit to Bloomington on April 8.

“The guys have done a good job taking it one game at a time,” LaFontaine said. “We are starting to play with more consistency. Every game has been like a playoff game.”

The Sioux City Musketeers are at the top of the league’s Western Conference with a league-high 77 points. They are poised to win the Anderson Cup, which is awarded to the team with the best overall regular-season record.

The Waterloo Black Hawks (74 points), Des Moines Buccaneers (68 points) and Forgo Force (67 points) are in second, third and fourth place in the West and have the inside track for playoff spots. The Lincoln Stars, who are in fifth place with 61 points, are still battling to get into the playoff picture.