Lumberjacks lose OT heartbreaker 5-4, end their season with a series loss to Chicago

By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – Nobody can say the Muskegon Lumberjacks went down without putting up one heck of a fight.

But they didn’t take advantage of crucial power-play opportunities, and their inability to convert brought their season to an end.

The Lumberjacks engaged in a classic battle with the Chicago Steel on Wednesday in the third and deciding game of their first-round Clark Cup playoff series.

The two teams battled relentlessly for three periods and nearly five minutes of overtime. The lead changed hands three times, and the Lumberjacks were just over five minutes away from pulling out a victory in regulation.

But Chicago scored a late goal in the third period to force overtime, then the Steel’s Aaro Vidgren connected on a power-play goal from close range just 4:37  into the extra session, giving his team a 5-4 win and a 2-1 victory in the series.

Chicago now advances to play Team USA in the USHL Eastern Conference semifinals.

Muskegon’s Alex Yakovenko makes the pass deep in the Lumberjacks end. Photo/Mitchell Dixon MSD Photography

The Lumberjacks, who were eliminated from the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row, finished the season with an overall record of 34-27-2.

“It was a short series and taking the first game meant a lot,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine. “I really thought for sure we would take this one, and we did everything we could, including battling back.

“It’s tough. That’s a great group of kids and I am going to miss them.”

The Jacks showed a great deal of determination, fighting back from deficits of 2-1 and 3-2. And they certainly poured on the offense, outshooting the Steel by a 52-29 margin.

But the puck wasn’t going in the net quite enough for the Lumberjacks, particularly in the crucial third period, when they had three full power play opportunities and a few seconds of another.

They only took advantage of one of those chances, when Vincent de Mey scored his second goal of the game at the 14:10 mark, giving the Jacks a slim 4-3 lead. But the Steel came back and tied it again less than a minute later, sending the game to overtime.

The Jacks started the overtime period with 1:52 left on their final  power play, and once again failed to convert.

Then Muskegon’s Jachym Kondelik was called for tripping, and Chicago won the game with Vidgren’s power play tally.

Overall the Jacks were 2-for-6 with a man advantage, and the lost opportunities cost them.

“We had a power play in overtime, and I was sure that we were going to score,” LaFontaine said. “You can be the best team on any given night, and still not come away with the win on the scoreboard. That’s how this game works.”

Both teams played their hearts out, and it was obvious that neither squad had the slightest desire to make an early exit from the playoffs.

The Jacks dominated offensively in the first period – just like they did in the first two games of the series – and outshot Chicago 18-8. But none of their shots found the mark, and the game was scoreless at the first intermission.

Then the punching and counterpunching began.

Muskegon opened the scoring with a power play goal by Marc Del Gaizo at 3:03 of the second period.

Chicago answered just 44 seconds later with a Baker Shore goal, then took the lead at the 4:50 mark when Tyler Gratton scored on a breakaway.

Marc Del Gaizo found the net a second time at the 9:59 mark, and the score was 2-2 after two periods.

Chicago took a 3-2 lead when Samuel Bucek scored six minutes into the third period. But Muskegon fired back with two goals from de Mey, at 6:12 and 14:10, to take a very promising 4-3 lead with just over five minutes left in regulation.

But the Steel refused to fold, getting a goal from Blake McLaughlin with just over four minutes remaining to tie the score one more time and second the game to overtime.

“The way we battled back and scored that power play goal, I thought, ‘now we just have to shut them down,’ but it just wasn’t in the cards,” LaFontaine said.

The Jacks had another opportunity when Chicago’s Nick Abruzzese was sent to the penalty box for tripping with eight seconds left in regulation. That allowed Muskegon to open the overtime period with a power play for 1:52.

But the Jacks again failed to convert, then Kondelik was penalized at the 3:56 mark, giving Chicago the power play opportunity that led to the winning goal.

Chicago goalie Oskaar Autio turned in his third straight strong performance, stopping 48 shots to claim the victory. Lumberjacks goalie Keegan Karki took the loss.

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