By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – When the weekend began, the Muskegon Lumberjacks and Youngstown Phantoms were part of a three-way tie for last place in the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference.
Two games later, Youngstown is no longer tied for last, and the Lumberjacks still are .
That’s because the Jacks lost twice to the Phantoms this weekend, including Sunday afternoon, when they fought back from a three-goal deficit, but still came out on the short end of a 5-4 score in front of 1,134 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
Muskegon gained one point in the standings over the weekend for playing to a regulation tie on Saturday. They are currently 4-6-2 on the season, good for 10 points. They are now tied for last with Cedar Rapids and Dubuque.
The good news for the Lumberjacks is that the Eastern Conference standings remain a logjam, with nobody running away with the race.
The Jacks are only four points (two victories) behind third-place Green Bay, five behind second-place Central Illinois and seven behind first-place Chicago.
Another promising factor for the Jacks is the competitiveness they’ve shown in recent games.
In Saturday’s overtime loss to Youngstown, Muskegon battled back from an early deficit to take the lead, fell behind again, then scored a late goal to force overtime before losing in the extra session.
On Sunday the Jacks rallied from a 4-1 deficit and pulled within one goal, fell behind by two, then scored again to create an exciting finish. But they couldn’t get the equalizer in the final minutes of the game.
The biggest problem for the Lumberjacks was on the defensive end. Youngstown scored four of its five goals on breakaways, when one or two Phantoms would break out of their own zone with the puck and close in on the Muskegon goal with little defensive resistance.
“There were three two-on-ones and a breakaway,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine.“The defense is holding the blue line (in the other team’s zone), and we have to have a forward backing them up. We’re an aggressive team, but you have to be able to read the ice at a fast pace, and we have to have our forwards working harder on defense.”
The Phantoms opened the scoring at the 7:41 mark of the opening period on a goal from Julian Kislin.
Youngstown increased its lead to 2-0 on a goal by Curtis Hall at the 15:51 mark of the first period.
The Lumberjacks responded with a Bobby Kaiser goal 16:40 into the first period to the deficit to 2-1. Matej Pekar and Monte Graham each had assists.
The Phantoms regained their two-goal lead at 3-1 with Hall’s second goal of the afternoon at the 12:38 mark of the second period.
Youngstown added a goal 1:31 into the third period to take a 4-1 advantage on a goal from Tommy Parrottino.
The Phantoms outshot the Jacks 20-5 in the second period.
Muskegon cut its deficit to 4-2 when Nolan Sullivan scored his first goal of the season at the 5:14 mark of the third period. Kaiser and Corey Clifton assisted.
The Lumberjacks added a goal to the 10:47 mark of the third period when Graham stole the puck just after a faceoff to the right of the Youngstown goal and quickly popped the puck into the net.
That made the score 4-3, but then Youngstown’s Hall completed his hat trick 14:09 into the third period on a breakaway goal to give the Phantoms a 5-3 advantage.
Muskegon made the score 5-4 with 3:49 remaining on Graham’s second goal of the contest. Jachym Kondelik picked up the lone assist on the tally.
Youngstown was whistled for a two-minute penalty with 3:32 remaining in the game, and the Jacks pulled their goalie to have a six-on-four skater advantage, but couldn’t get the equalizer down the stretch.
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