By Dave Tomczak

MUSKEGON – Sparked by an early power-play opportunity, the Muskegon Lumberjacks struck quickly Friday, then held on when they had to.

The Jacks scored three first period goals, which gave them just enough of an edge to claim a  4-3 win over Central Illinois at L.C. Walker Arena.

The Lumberjacks improved to 29-9-3 on the season, and remain in first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference with 61 points.

The two teams will square off again Saturday night at 7:15 p.m.

Declan Carlile circles around with the puck near the blue line for Muskegon. Photo/Jason Goorman

Both offenses started off slow, generating a combined five shots through the opening nine minutes.

Then Muskegon took a 1-0 lead, scoring with the man advantage when Alex Yakovenko got open in front of the net and went top shelf for the goal 9:13 into the first period.

Egor Afanasyev made it 2-0 just 1:11 later, using a defender to shield the goalie from his slap shot.

The Lumberjacks’ Danil Gushchin flipped in a wrist shot from the blue line with 1:11 left in the opening period, giving Muskegon a commanding 3-0 lead.

“I thought we played well all the way through the game,” Muskegon coach Mike Hamilton said. “We had some really good power plays today and stuck to our game plan.”

Powered by two power plays, the Aces outshot Muskegon 6-1 in the opening eight minutes of the second period, and cut the lead to 3-1 on Trevor Janicke’s goal.

But just 23 seconds later, the Jacks’ Bobby Lynch got behind the defense and slid the puck in for a 4-1 lead after two periods.

Central Illinois’ Tyler Grafton scored twice from in front of the net in the third period, his second goal coming with 3:03 remaining, to cut the lead to 4-3.

Jagger Joshua looks to get his stick in front of Central Illinois’ Joe Dunlap. Photo/Jason Goorman

The Aces pulled goalie Mitchell Gibson with 1:19 left in the game for a man advantage, but the Muskegon defense kept them from getting the equalizer.

“Our defense was really good today,” Hamilton said. “It was a good team effort and the boys found a way. We just have to close out games a little better.”

The Lumberjacks outshot the Aces 34-25. Muskegon goalie Brandon Bussi stopped 22 shots to pick up the win.

Yakovenko finished the game with three assists, Andrej Kollar had two, and Gushchin and Mikael Hakkarainen each added single assists.