By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – Conventional wisdom says the first-place Muskegon Lumberjacks should never have to fight so hard for a victory over the last-place Lincoln Stars.

After all, Muskegon came into the game with 36 wins on the season, while Lincoln only had 11.

Egor Afanasyev pushes a bouncing puck up ice for Muskegon. Photo/Marc Hoeksema

But the Lumberjacks have been struggling lately, and any kind of win is welcome.

The Jacks, who came into Saturday night’s game with a 2-4-1 record in the month of March, had to come from behind to force a tie and overtime, before leading scorer Egor Afanasyev settled things with a goal in the OT shootout to give Muskegon a 4-3 victory at L.C. Walker Arena.

Afanasyev ended the game after the first three Lincoln shooters , and the first two Lumberjacks, failed to find the mark in the shootout. He scored the winner with a nice fake and backhand shot that left Lincoln goalie Jacob Mucitelli completely fooled.

“I had to score,” said Afanasyev, the Lumberjacks’ leading scorer, who is sixth is the USHL league point race. “I was pretty confident in my moves. Just faked a forehand and put the puck backhand top shelf.”

Afanasyev said it was nice to end his team’s two-game losing streak, but added that there is no reason for fans to be concerned about the Jacks’ recent struggles.

“Things go up and down all the time throughout a season,” he said. “You can’t play all 60 games perfect. We just have to get back to our game, but we aren’t frustrated.”

“Just wait until the playoffs. That is the most important part.”

The Lumberjacks are now 37-15-4 on the season. Their magic number to clinch the Eastern Conference title and a first-round bye in the playoffs is now at seven points.

Muskegon’s Michael Hakkarainen crosses the redline with the puck. Photo/Marc Hoeksema

After the victory, the Lumberjacks learned from Coach Mike Hamilton that they are getting the next three days off to unwind, before returning for their last six regular season games, beginning next Friday at home against Waterloo.

“Our guys are battling,” Hamilton said. “We are at that point in the season where we are mentally and physically whipped. It’s a long season and the guys are putting in six days a week. We are going to give the guys a few days off so they can go and get mentally back. This will be the first long break of the year.

“This break is unusual, but at the end of the day we can keep playing average or we can try to do something.”

The first period was scoreless, with the Lumberjacks outshooting the Stars 10-9.

The Jacks finally got on the scoreboard at 12:36 of the second period when Cam Knuble scored his third goal of the season with a wrist shot from the left circle, and Muskegon led 1-0 after two periods.

The teams traded goals in a much more active third period.

Lincoln started things off just 22 seconds into the period when Tristan Ashbrook scored a power-play goal. The Stars had the early power play because Knuble was called for a penalty for checking from behind as the clock expired at the end of the second period.

The Lumberjacks went ahead 2-1 less than a minute later when Afanasyev notched his 24th goal of the season.

But the Stars wouldn’t go away. They collected goals from Grant Johnson (3:50) and former Lumberjack Brock Bremer (9:39) to take a 3-2 lead that left the Muskegon home crowed stunned in silence.

Then defenseman Declan Carlisle, who came to the Jacks earlier this season in a trade with Lincoln, stuck it to his old teammates with a goal on a turnaround wrist shot at the 10:22 mark, leaving the game tied 3-3.

The five minute overtime period was scoreless, leading to the OT shootout, when three players from each team take turns going one-on-one with the opposing goalie.

All three Lincoln shooters failed to score, thanks to some great saves by Muskegon goalie Brandon Bussi. The Jacks’ first two shooters, Danil Gushkin and Alex Yankovenko, also missed the mark, leaving things up to Afanasyev, who took care of business.

“That was a nice move there at the end,” Hamilton said about the shootout goal. “Bussi was also really good for us in the shootout with the key saves. It was good to find a way to get the two points. It wasn’t pretty but we found a way to get it done. At this time of the year that is the important piece. There are no easy wins in this league.”