By Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks were itching to return to action – following a nine-day layoff – to end their first losing skid of the season.
And they accomplished their goal, ending the short two-game losing streak with a 5-2 win over the last-place Madison Capitols on Friday in front of 3,233 fans at L.C Walker Arena.
Muskegon is now 21-5-1 on the season, good for 43 points and first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. The Lumberjacks are currently 12 points ahead of the second-place Chicago Steel.
The Lumberjacks will face Madison on Saturday at home in a rematch before locking heads with the Steel on New Year’s Eve. Saturday’s game is slated for 7:15 p.m.
Friday night’s game was closer than the final score indicated. The Lumberjacks nursed a precarious one-goal advantage for nearly 13 minutes in the second period and 16 minutes during the third.
“They (Madison) packed it in and played great defensively,” said Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton. “We are going through a little stretch where we are just not putting pucks away. We are getting great chances but we are not finishing.”
The Lumberjacks were paced by Mikael Hakkarainen, who scored two goals and picked up an assist while James McIsaac added two goals.
“Hakk (Hakkarainen) has that ability to score,” Hamilton said. “He has been out for a long time with an injury so it was good to see the old Hakk with good strength, and McIsaac played his best game for us this year.”
Hakkarainen opened the scoring for Muskegon with a 5-on-3 power play goal at the 14:09 mark of the first period to give the Lumberjacks a 1-0 lead.
The Lumberjacks increased their advantage to 2-0 late in the first stanza on a goal from Egor Afanasyev at the 19:21 mark.
Muskegon outshot the Capitols by a 19-7 margin during the opening period.
The Capitols cut their deficit to 2-1 at the 7:03 mark of the second period on an unassisted goal from Carson Bantle.
The Lumberjacks had a chance to increase their lead late in the second period with a penalty shot from Afanasyev and three power play chances, but failed to connect on all four occasions.
Muskegon led 2-1 after two periods of play.
Hakkarainen finally increased the Lumberjacks’ lead to 3-1 with his second goal of the night at the 9:55 mark of the third period.
The Capitols quickly responded 49 seconds later with a power play tally from Josh Boyer to cut Muskegon’s lead to 3-2.
Muskegon regained its two-goal advantage with a shorthanded goal from McIsaac after Madison’s goaltender turned the puck over at the 16:41 mark of the third frame.
The Lumberjacks closed out the scoring with an empty net goal by McIsaac with 1:23 remaining in regulation.
Muskegon’s goaltender Brandon Bussi stopped 32 of 34 shots, and kept his team ahead through a long stretch when the Jacks only led by one.
“Bussi has been a rock all season long,” said Hamilton. “He bails us out when we go through our lows and he is the secret to our success.”
The Lumberjacks outshot Madison by a 46-34 margin.