By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – Most teams go through rough stretches over the course of a long season.
But the Lumberjacks’ current slump may be coming at a worrisome time.
The Jacks continued a month-long scoring drought on Friday with a disappointing 5-1 loss to the third-place Youngstown Phantoms at L.C. Walker Arena. They will complete the weekend with a home game against the Lincoln Stars on Saturday at 7:15 p.m.
The Lumberjacks still have a very nice 36-15-4 record, and entered Friday with a 10-point lead over second-place Chicago in the USHL Eastern Conference standings.
But in their six games since March 3, the Jacks have not been impressive. They have posted a 1-4-1 record and have been shut out two times. In the two other losses, including Friday’s, they only scored one goal.
The Lumberjacks are still quite likely to win the Eastern Conference title and earn a first-round berth in the Clark Cup playoffs.
But the playoffs are quickly approaching – Muskegon only has seven regular season games left, and doesn’t seem to be peaking at the right time.
“At the end of the day you can’t give up three breakaway goals and expect to win the hockey game,” said a visibly upset Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton. “They wanted it more than we did, and I was very disappointed in our effort today.
“We’ve got to look in the mirror obviously, and guys have to get back to the type of players they are. I think we’ve gotten away from that a little bit. I am not real happy with how we are playing. I promised from day one that we were going to work hard and give a good show for our fans. If our players were getting paid I’d tell them they owe the fans their money back today.”
Youngstown took control of the game early and never looked back.
Trevor Kuntar opened the scoring with a power play goal at the 4:51 mark of the first period. Dalton Messina added a shorthanded goal on a Lumberjack power play at the 10:26 mark, and the Phantoms led 2-0 after one.
The visitors scored three more times in the second period, with goals from Kuntar (45 seconds in the period), Brett Murray (power play goal at 9:39) and Messina (10:31).
Muskegon pulled starting goalie Brandon Bussi shortly after Youngstown’s third goal, and he was replaced by backup Ryan McInchak. Bussi stopped 7 of 10 shots.
Nolan Sullivan finally put the Lumberjacks on the scoreboard with a breakaway goal at 6:09 of the third period, with an assist from Ryan Savage. It was Sullivan’s 18th goal of the year.
Youngstown goalie Chad Veltri got the win, stopping 38 of 39 shots.
Special teams were not a strong point for the Lumberjacks in the game. Youngstown scored twice in five power-play opportunities and added a shorthanded goal. Muskegon was 0-for-4 on the power play.
The Jacks lost despite outshooting the Phantoms 39-27.
“I was disappointed in our compete level tonight,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think we were terrible, but every little mistake we made went back into our net.
“We skated hard, but we have to go to dirty areas in front of the net, because goalies today are too damn good. We need to get back to playing with grit.”