By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – The tough thing about a short three-game playoff series is that there’s very little room for error.
The Jacks had a one-goal lead after one period, but the Chicago Steel exploded for four goals in the second and two more in the third to secure a 6-2 victory in front of 1.023 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
The first-round Clark Cup playoff series is now tied at one game apiece. The two teams will collide in the third and final game on Wednesday at 7:15 p.m. in Muskegon.
If the Lumberjacks win, they will advance to the second round of the playoffs against Youngstown, beginning Saturday night on the road.
If they lose, their season will be over.
“I actually thought we played our best first period of the year, and I don’t think we played poorly, but it was one of those nights that everything that was shot went in the net,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine, whose team will play its fifth game in six nights on Wednesday “It’s all about how you respond. We have to come back tomorrow ready to play.”
The Jacks looked ready to jump on Chicago and clinch the series in the first period on Tuesday, outshooting the Steel 14-5.
They scored the only goal of the period when defenseman Alex Yakovenko shot from between the circles on a power-play opportunity. Chicago goalie Oskar Autio got a piece of the puck before it tricked past him and into the net, putting Muskegon up 1-0.
Wyatt Bongiovanni assisted on the goal.
Chicago took control of the game in the second period, scoring four unanswered goals in the first 9:17.
Aaro Vidgren open the onslaught with a goal just 2:14 into the period.
The Steel’s Graham Lillibridge appeared to score at the 5:32 mark, but it was immediately waived off by the referee, who allowed play to continue.
Chicago’s Robert Mastrosimone definitely put the puck in the net exactly two minutes later. But game officials used the break following that goal to review the video of the Lillibridge shot, and eventually ruled that it was a goal and Mastrosimone’s tally did not count.
Either way Chicago led 2-1.
Vigdren scored his second goal of the game at the 6:23 mark, giving Chicago a 3-1 lead. That spelled the end of the game for Muskegon goalie Keegan Karki, who was pulled in favor of backup Zach Borgiel.
Several of the Chicago goals came on long shots that Karki typically would have stopped. LaFontaine figured it was just not his night, and decided to relieve him so he can be rested and ready for Wednesday’s showdown.
“You could just see that he wasn’t himself, he wasn’t focused,” LaFontaine said about Karki. “But he’s a competitor and he’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”
Chicago’s Brian Hurley added a goal at the 9:17 mark, and Chicago led 4-1 after two periods.
The Steel added two more goals in the third period – from Blake McLaughlin and Mastrosimone – to take a 6-1 lead.
Bongiovanni finished the scoring with a goal for the Lumberjacks at 15:40 of the final period.
Muskegon outshot Chicago 40-25.