By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – Winning championships is all about timing.
A month ago, the Muskegon Lumberjacks looked like a team that peaked way too soon, and was fading at the worst possible time.
But after a sluggish sub-.500 March, the Jacks regrouped, won four of their last five regular season games, and are again among the favorites to win the United States Hockey League’s Clark Cup for the first time in team history.
The Jacks, who had a bye during the first round of the playoffs earlier this week, will begin their postseason quest this weekend, with the first two games of their best-of-five series against the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
Game 1 will be Saturday at L.C. Walker Arena at 7:15 p.m. Game 2 will be Sunday at home at 5:15 p.m. Game 3 will be Tuesday in Dubuque. Game 4, if necessary, would be Wednesday in Dubuque, and Game 5 would be a week from Saturday in Muskegon.
The Jacks – along with the Tri-City Storm – were the talk of the league for the first five months of the USHL season.
They opened the season on Sept. 28 with a 4-3 victory over the defending Clark Cup champion Fargo Force, won their first eight games, and 11 of their first 13. By the end of February the Lumberjacks were a pretty amazing 34-11-3, and were comfortably in first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.
But things went sour in March, when Muskegon limped to a 4-5-1 record, with three losses at home. It seemed like the worst possible time for things to go sour, with the playoffs looming in April.
So fans were very much relieved over the last five games of the schedule, when the team went 4-1.
Lumberjacks first-year coach Mike Hamilton, who was visibly frustrated at times during the bad month, now says he thinks the slump was good for his squad.
“I think it definitely taught us the importance of taking care of the defensive zone,” Hamilton said. “During that stretch our special teams went dead and we weren’t scoring goals. Prior to that we were putting up five goals per game, so we could make mistakes in the defensive zone and it didn’t hurt as much.
“I think it was a matter of where we were at in the standings, and some guys may have lost some focus for awhile. There was a stretch where it got a little business-like, instead of being fun. Now we’re loose again and having fun, and that’s when we’re at our best.
“From our standpoint, it was a good thing we went through it. We are a better team for it.”
The Lumberjacks finished the regular season with an all-time team best 41-17-3 record, good for 86 points in the standings. They finished nine points ahead of second-place Chicago in the Eastern Conference, and were second overall in the league to Tri-City.
When asked about the keys to such a great regular season, Hamilton points to the guy he’s been praising all season – Lumberjacks goalie Brandon Bussi.
Bussi came to training camp expecting to be the backup to since-departed Keegan Karki, but ended up becoming the starter when Karki was injured.
Bussi never gave up the job, and finished the regular season with outstanding numbers – a record of 33-12-3 with seven saves and a goals against average of 2.44, the fourth best in the league.
“Obviously number one for us has been Bussi in net – he’s been phenomenal,” Hamilton said. “He gave us that confidence to go out and take some chances and not be afraid to make some mistakes, because he could bail us out.
“Our expectations for Bussi early on were not nearly what they turned out to be. But once he got started, it was pretty clear that we had someone who could be pretty special. The ability has always been there. I think it was a little bit about gaining some confidence, and he’s growing into his body at the right time.”
Hamilton also credits what he calls his underrated defensive corps, featuring solid performers like Colby Bukes, Cam McDonald, Matt Staudacher, Nash Neinhuis, as well as the Jack’s most offensive of defensemen, Alex Yakovenko, who is third on the team in scoring with 19 goals and 33 assists.
“One through eight our defense is as good as anybody’s in the league,” the coach said.
Balanced scoring and offensive depth have also been huge pluses for the Lumberjacks.
Tops on the point list is forward Egor Afanasyev, who finished tenth in the league in scoring with 27 goals and 35 assists for 62 points. But the Jacks also have nine other players who reached double-digits in goals – Bobby Lynch with 21, Nolan Sullivan (20), Yakovenko (19), Mikael Hakkarainen (19), Ryan Savage (17), Danil Guschin (16), Max Ellis (13), Alex Gaffney (13) and Jagger Joshua (10).
“Looking at our lineup now, we have guys who will not be playing tomorrow (in Game 1) that would be playing for any other team in the league,” Hamilton said. “Our depth is really, really good. Nobody talked much about our injuries or guys who were missing from the lineup this year, because nobody really noticed it. That’s because other guys always stepped up.”
The Lumberjacks will enter the playoffs injury-free, according to the coach, and will only have one player missing – Guschin, who is competing for the Russian team at the U18 World Championship tournament in Sweden, and will not return until the next round of the playoffs, if the Jacks make it that far.
Muskegon will be the definite favorite in the series against Dubuque, which finished sixth in the Eastern Conference in the regular season with a 28-26-8 record.
But Dubuque is obviously dangerous, which became apparent in its two-game upset sweep of third-place Youngstown in last week’s first round playoff series. And the Jacks learned first-hand how tough the Fighting Saints can be, going 2-1-1 against them in the regular season.
“Every game against them was a one-goal game,” Hamilton said. “I don’t expect these games are any different. They are a defensive-minded, well-coached hockey team.”
That being said, the Lumberjacks are fired up at the prospect of winning the first Clark Cup in team history. That’s particularly true for the players who are back from last season, and remember the bitter taste of being upset in the first round of the playoffs by Chicago.
“This is a great opportunity for the guys to come together and do something special,” Hamilton said. “We have a lot of guys with a lot of talent, and they’re hungry. We’re really excited about the playoffs, and we’re ready to get it going.”