By Nate Thompson
Muskegon held a lead throughout most of the first and second periods at L.C. Walker Arena, but the Lancers pulled ahead with a goal off a rebound with just 1:27 left, then buried the Lumberjacks with an empty netter.
The good news is that the Lumberjacks’ magic number for clinching a playoff berth fell to just two points, because seventh-place Cedar Rapids, the top team on the outside of the USHL Eastern Conference playoff picture, lost to Dubuque.
The Lumberjacks can stamp their ticket to the playoffs with a win on Saturday night, when they meet Dubuque in a rematch at home at 7:15 p.m.
All in all, Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine was not too upset about the way his team played against Omaha, a Western Conference power that has already clinched a playoff spot.
“We hurt ourselves with penalties in that second period, but I liked how we played 5-on-5,” said LaFontaine, whose squad fell to 30-23-2 overall. “(Omaha) is a good team. We can’t give them too many opportunities. But we figured it was gonna go down to the wire, and it did.”
The Lumberjacks had a 1-0 lead after one period, after they took advantage of a power play opportunity with 10:17 on the clock.
Towering 6-foot-6, 226-pound center Jachym Kondelik camped out in front of Omaha goalie Christian Sbaraglia, gained control of the puck with little resistance, and hacked it into the net through the five hole on Sbaraglia.
Assists were credited to Mikael Hakkarainen and Marc Del Gaizo.
The Lumberjacks were plagued by penalties in the second period, when they were whistled for five infractions and spent 10 minutes in the penalty box .
Two of the penalties came on high sticking calls.
“We have to keep our sticks down and play with a little more discipline,” LaFontaine said. “We put ourselves in that position and (Omaha) took advantage.”
The penalties kept the Jacks from maximizing their offensive attack, but Omaha knotted the score when both teams were at full strength.
The Lancers’ Christian O’Neill scored unassisted just two minutes into the second period, making the score 1-1.
The Lumberjacks quickly answered just 41 seconds later when Matej Pekar fired a slap shot past a shielded Sbaraglia to put the hosts up 2-1.
Hakkarainen and Anthony Del Gaizo had assists on the goal. The assist added to Del Gaizo’s league-leading point total of 67.
The Lancers finally broke through on their abundance of power play opportunities with 6:23 left in the second period, when Cole Gallant blasted a shot from a few feet inside the blue line and beat Muskegon goalie Keegan Karki top shelf, tying the game at 2-2.
The Lumberjacks couldn’t break through against new Lancers’ goalie Zach Driscoll the rest of the way. Driscoll replaced Sbaraglia after Muskegon’s second score.
Most of the third period was scoreless, and the contest looked like it was headed to overtime tied at 2-2, but the Lancers’ Cole Gallant was in the right place at the right time as the clock ran down.
A shot bounced off the pads of Karki, and Gallant cleaned up the rebound to give Omaha a 3-2 advantage.
Muskegon pulled Karki following the goal, but couldn’t find an equalizing goal with an extra skater on the ice.
Omaha sealed the deal with an empty net score from Jack Randl with 7.8 seconds left.
“We had a lot of chances,” LaFontaine said. “I thought we were better forechecking, we had better opportunities and we moved the puck well, but sometimes, that’s the way it goes.”
“Now, it’s all how you respond (Saturday night). And these guys have responded really well all season.”