By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
On Saturday, the Jacks found themselves in an early hole against the last-place Madison Capitols, under pretty odd circumstances.
Madison drew a penalty midway through the first period, giving the Lumberjacks a one-man advantage. But instead of taking advantage, Muskegon gave up two shorthanded-goals on that same power play opportunity and trailed 2-0.
Fortunately the Lumberjacks are the kind of team that can dig themselves out of that kind of situation. They rallied twice to tie the score, then got a pair of third-period goal from forward Danil Gushchin to steal a 5-3 victory in front of 2,777 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.
Gushchin led the way with a three-goal hat trick while Bobby Lynch had a goal and an assist.
The Lumberjacks are now 34-11-3 on the season. They remain in first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference by at least 14 points over second-place Chicago.
But the power play remains so-so for the Jacks as they head into the stretch run of the regular season and prepare for the playoffs. They entered Saturday’s game 12th in the 17-team league in power play scoring percentage.
They were 1-for-4 on the power play against Madison – and gave up the two shorthanded goals in the first period.
But Jacks Coach Mike Hamilton said the power play has been improving lately, and blamed the two shorthanded goals on exhaustion, after the Jacks played their third game in three days.
“We obviously don’t want to give up shorthanded goals, but there has been lots of good movement (of the puck on the power play),” said Hamilton, whose team will hit the road for a pair of games in Youngstown next Friday and Saturday. “We were really tired today, being our third game, and we were mentally drained and made a lot of mistakes we normally don’t make, like fumbling pucks.
“We were throwing lots of shots up, but it was a grind today, and we expected to be off because we have played six games in the last nine days and five were against different opponents. It was a gutsy win and it was good to see us regroup in the third and relax and get it done.”
Madison started the scoring with the two first-period shorthanded goals, by Chaz Smedsrud and Noah Weber, to take a 2-0 lead at the 11.40 mark.
The Jacks regrouped and answered with a pair of goals, by Gushchin and Lynch, to tie the score 2-2 after one period.
Madison went up 3-2 when Josh Boyce scored a power play goal at 9:33 of the second period, prompting the Jacks to pull goalie Ryan McInchak, who is usually the backup, in favor of Brandon Bussi.
Muskegon answered again with a goal from Max Ellis at 12:19, and the score was 3-3 after two periods.
Gushchin scored the game-winning goal at 8:57 of the third period, when Madison goalie Grant Riley stopped a shot but failed to ice it, and Gushchin got enough stick on the puck to make it trickle into the net.
Gushchin completed his hat trick with an empty-net goal, after Madison pulled its goalie, with 1:01 left in the game.
Bussi got the win in goal, stopping all eight shots he faced after coming into the game. Egor Afanasyev, Nash Nienhaus, Igor Larionov, Nic Belpedio, Colby Bukes and Nolan Sullivan all had one assist for Muskegon.
Muskegon outshot Madison by a decisive 49-27 margin.