By Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks have been going through their roughest stretch of the season, and were determined to break out of it with a successful homecoming after a rough road trip.

There were a few anxious moments for the Jacks, who were trying to shed a season-high three-game losing streak, but in the end they got a much-needed win.

Muskegon jumped out to three-goal lead, allowed a pair of tallies late in the contest, then sealed things up with an empty-net goal to defeat the Des Moines Buccaneers 4-2 on Friday at L.C. Walker Arena in front of 2,796 fans.

The Lumberjacks are now 36-13-4 on the season, good for 76 points and first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference standings. They currently hold a 14-point advantage over second-place Chicago with nine regular season games remaining.

Nolan Sullivan pushes the puck along the boards for Muskegon. Photo/Leo Valdez

Muskegon will close out the weekend with a rematch against the Buccaneers at home on Saturday, with puck drop at 6:15 p.m., one hour earlier than normal.

“(Des Moines) started coming a little bit because we started making mistakes,” said Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton. “They are a good hockey team, no doubt about it, and it was a matter of when they were going to start coming. At the end of the day I thought we dominated for two-and-a-half periods.”

The Lumberjacks got the only goal of the first period at the 5:27 mark when Mikael Hakkarainen found the net. The Jacks outshot Des Moines 11-4.

They increased their lead to 3-0 after two periods with goals from Bobby Lynch and Ryan Savage. They had a 26-11 advantage in shots through 40 minutes.

“Our good defense was part of our good offense,” Hamilton said. “We had 60 percent puck possession, which gave us control of the game and helped us dictate the pace.”

The Buccaneers woke up offensively in the third period, collecting goals from Patrick Schmiedlin (13:54) and Mac Welsher (15:56) to cut Muskegon’s lead to 3-2.

But the Lumberjacks sealed the victory with an empty-net goal by Savage with 16 seconds remaining in the game.

Des Moines outshot the Lumberjacks 20-11 during the third period. The Lumberjacks finished with an overall 37-31 shot advantage.

Brandon Bussi stopped 29 of 31 shots in net for Muskegon to pick up his 30th win of the season.

“Bus has been phenomenal all season long, and he is the reason why we are who we are,” said Hamilton. “He keeps us in games, and tonight he bailed us out.”