By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks are eager to sew up a playoff spot.
The Cedar Rapids Roughriders demonstrated that on Friday night.
The Roughriders, a sub-.500 team battling for one of the USHL’s final playoff spots, led the Lumberjacks 1-0 midway through the third period on Friday.
But the Jacks finally got a goal to force overtime, then Mikkael Hakkarainen scored with 11 seconds left in the extra session to give the Muskegon an exciting 2-1 victory in front of 1,961 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
The victory gave Muskegon a big push toward clinching a playoff spot. The Jacks’ magic number is now down to nine points with nine games left in the season.
They shaved two points off their magic number with the win, and then another point because Cedar Rapids, the top team currently out of the playoff picture in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, suffered the overtime loss.
The Lumberjacks should be in good shape when it comes to making the playoffs. But every win is still important, particularly at home, because six out of their last nine games are on the road.
Muskegon, now 28-21-2 on the season, can take another big step toward clinching a playoff spot when the host Cedar Rapids in a rematch on Saturday night at 7:15 p.m.
“That was a playoff game,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine. “Those guys (Cedar Rapids) are fighting for their life, being four points out of a playoff spot. We haven’t gone into overtime too many times this season. It was a nice win.”
The Lumberjacks outshot Cedar Rapids 44-24, but had trouble putting the puck in the net for most of the evening.
Jordan Timmons scored for the Roughriders at 14:27 of the first period, and the score remained 1-0 until midway through the third.
Fans started to wonder if the Lumberjacks would get the equalizer down the stretch, mostly due to penalties, which have been a headache for the team all season.
The Lumberjacks opened the third period on the penalty-kill for 38 seconds. There were only nine seconds left in their penalty when Cedar Rapids was called for an infraction, which meant the Jacks were about to have a man advantage for the next 1:51.
But they wasted their opportunity five seconds later when they were called for another penalty.
The Jacks wasted two more minutes later in the period when they were whistled for another infraction.
But Muskegon’s Jachym Kondelik finally tied the game with a beautiful goal 9:31 into the third period. The puck shot straight to him following a faceoff in the left circle, and he rifled a wrist shot from between the circles into the Cedar Rapids goal.
The Jacks riddled Cedar Rapids goalie Jiri Patera with several shots in OT, which is played 3-on-3, but came away empty each time.
It looked like the game was headed to a shootout when Hakkarainen tipped a rebound into the corner of the goal with 11.9 seconds left on the clock. The referees paused and reviewed the play, but finally determined that the goal was good and the game was over.
“It was behind the goalie’s skate so I just stuffed it in,” Hakkarainen said. “I didn’t realize it went in,
and when I did I went crazy after that.
“We believed all the time that we could get the game-tying and game-winning goal. We always believed we could do it.”
Goalie Keegan Karki secured his 21st win of the season for the Lumberjacks.