By Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – Let’s put into perspective how much the Muskegon Lumberjacks have already improved from last season.
The Lumberjacks earned their 15th victory of the season last season on January 13 in a 5-2 home win over the Green Bay Gamblers.
This season the Jacks are just 24 hours beyond digesting their Thanksgiving dinners, and they’ve already claimed their 15th victory.
Ironically Muskegon did it by defeating the Gamblers 8-3 on Friday at L.C. Walker Arena in front of 1,940 Lumberjack faithful.
The Lumberjacks, who have now won four straight games, improved to 15-2 on the season, good for 30 points and first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. Muskegon is six points ahead of second place Central Illinois.
“Obviously we are real proud of the guys,” said Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton. “I don’t really know how many wins we have at this point, we are just playing and showing up and trying to get better every day. The winning has been a bi-product of that.
“I thought we got off to a great start, but we played really loose during the first period. We were too wide open and we gave up too many good chances.”
The Lumberjacks led by Egor Afanasyev with two goals and an assist, James McIsaac with two goals and Bobby Lynch with a goal and two assists.
Alex Yakovenko and Danil Gushchin each had a goal and an assist and Mikael Hakkarainen contributed two assists.
Muskegon jumped out to a 3-0 lead midway through the first period on two goals from Afanasyev (at the 1:01 and 12:39 marks) and McIsaac (2:45).
The Gamblers cut their deficit to 3-1 on a goal by Noah Prokop at 14:13 of the first period.
The Lumberjacks led 3-1 at the first intermission.
The teams traded goals during the second period.
Green Bay cut its deficit to 3-2 with a goal from Jesse Tucker at the 1:23 mark of the second before the Jacks responded with a tally from Lynch at 5:11.
The Gamblers again cut the deficit to a single goal 8:35 into the second stanza with a Paul Maust goal. Muskegon responded with a goal at the 15:08 mark by Gushchin.
The Lumberjacks closed the game with an explosion, scoring the lone three goals of the third period – from Yakovenko on the power play at 3:31, Alex Gaffney at 14:07, and McIsaac at the 14:32 mark.
Muskegon goaltender Brandon Bussi stopped 28 of 31 shots before getting pulled for backup Xavier Medina, who stopped both shots he faced in six minutes of action.
“We had one of our affiliates up and we wanted to give him some minutes, and we had the opportunity to do that,” Hamilton said about the goalie change.
Both teams had 33 shots on goal.