By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
The Jacks, who managed to fight off elimination in their best-of-five USHL playoff series with a victory on Thursday, dropped a 7-2 decision to the Dubuque Fighting Saints in front of 1,574 fans at L. C. Walker Arena.
The Fighting Saints clinched the series three games to one, and now advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Lumberjacks, meanwhile, made a very early exit from the Clark Cup playoffs following a very successful regular season.
They posted a 37-18-5 record and finished tied for second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, only two points (one victory) behind conference champion Chicago. Their 37 victories set a new franchise record for the Jacks, who have been in existence for seven seasons.
“It was a fun season, just a great bunch of guys that bonded together and loved each other and played for each other,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine, who completed his first season with the team.
“That’s why you have to enjoy the journey. There is only one team left standing in the end, anyway. These guys gave it their all every night.”
The odds were long for the Lumberjacks when they returned from Dubuque this week for Games 3 and 4 of the series.
The first problem is that they played with a shorthanded roster for the entire series.
Two players – leading scorer Andrei Svechnikov and Jachym Kondelik – were competing in an international tournament and missed the entire series. Mikael Hakkarainen was injured late in the regular season and also missed the series.
Matt Steeves had to sit out Game 3 with a one-game suspension, while Casey Gilling was hurt in Game 3 and missed the final game.
The Jacks also faced the challenge of digging themselves out of a two-game hole. They lost the first two games last weekend in Dubuque – including a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1 – meaning they needed to sweep the last three to advance.
They took one step in that direction on Thursday, winning 3-0, but ran out of gas on Friday.
The Lumberjacks fell behind quickly and never recovered.
Dubuque opened the scoring at 3:40 of the first period on a goal by Patrick Kudla.
The Lumberjacks were handicapped by penalties in that crucial first period, with Dubuque enjoying four power-play opportunities.
The Fighting Saints only scored on one of those chances, but spent most of the first period on the attack while the Jacks struggled to kill penalties and avoid falling too far behind.
The Lumberjacks almost got through all four shorthanded situations unscathed, but Cole Guttman scored on the final power play with 12 seconds left in the period to put the Fighting Saints up 2-0.
The situation became even more challenging just nine seconds into the second period when Dubuque’s Jacob Hamacher scored, giving the visitors a 3-0 lead.
Austin Alger broke through with a goal for the Lumberjacks at 8:20 of the second period, making the score 3-1.
The Jacks had several more great scoring opportunities in the period, and a chance to get back in the game, but they were frustrated time after time by Dubuque goalie Jaxon Castor, who had a great series for Dubuque, including a shutout victory in Game 2.
The Fighting Saints led 3-1 after two periods, then blew the game open with four goals in the third period, from Quinn Preston, Jacob Hamacher, Michael Boyle and Alex Steeves.
Muskegon got a third-period goal from Will Smith, but it was too little, too late.
“If we could have gotten the lead we felt that we could have played with them, but it’s tough playing this team from behind,” LaFontaine said. “Those first couple goals hurt. Give their goalie credit, he played a hell of a series.”
The Jacks were outshot 41-29. Goalie Adam Brizgala, who was brilliant in the Game 3 victory on Thursday, took the loss in net.