By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – This time the Muskegon Lumberjacks held on when the game was on the line, and their Eastern Conference finals series is headed back to Chicago tied at one game apiece.

Muskegon’s No. 19 Nolan Sullivan and Matt Staudacher stop Cole Quisenberry near the Chicago blue line. Photo/Jason Goorman

On Saturday night, the Jacks held a one-goal lead late in the contest, and nearly escaped with a Game 1 victory. But the Chicago Steel scored with three seconds remaining in regulation, then scored again in overtime, to hand the Jacks a confidence-shaking loss.

That made Sunday’s Game 2, again at L.C. Walker Arena, a must-win for the Jacks, and they delivered. They again held a one-goal lead in the final minutes, and this time kept the Steel at bay and captured a 3-2 victory.

The best-of-five series now heads back to Chicago for Games 3 and 4, on Friday and Saturday night. Game 5, if necessary, will be back in Muskegon a week from Monday.

The winner of the series will advance to the USHL Clark Cup finals.

“It was a clean ending, and I am proud of how the guys responded today,” said Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton. “That was a disappointing loss and nobody slept well last night. How you respond tells a lot about your team.”

The victory meant a lot for the Lumberjacks in a number of ways. First and foremost, it meant survival, because two straight losses to start a five-game series probably would have spelled doom. They also needed a psychological lift after Saturday’s crushing defeat.

And for the Lumberjacks who were on last year’s squad, beating Chicago at home in the playoffs carries extra meaning. A year ago, the Jacks were the solid favorites in a first-round, 2 of 3 playoff series against the Steel, and all three games were at home.

But Chicago won two of three, including the last one in overtime, and handed Muskegon an early exit from the playoffs.

Colby Bukes clears out Chicago’s No. 18 John Spetz in front of goalie Brandon Bussi. Photo/Jason Goorman

“It is really personal for me, especially since I got traded from them, and hopefully we win two at Fox Valley (Chicago’s home arena) and go to the finals,” said Lumberjacks forward Mikael Hakkarainen, who came to Muskegon from Chicago in a 2016 transaction.

“It was kind of crazy with us losing yesterday, and it was kind of an emotional night. We were fired up to go tonight and I think the crowd noticed it. It was a great first period and we held on to it tonight.”

The Jacks, facing their must-win scenario, came out flying on Sunday. Jagger Joshua scored just 19 seconds into the game, with assists from Ryan Savage and Declan Carlisle, to give Muskegon a 1-0 lead.

Chicago’s Robert Mastrosimone found the net at the 9:46 mark of the first period, tying things up 1-1, but Hakkarainen scored his third goal in two days at 13:01, and the Jacks led 2-1 at the first break.

Jack Williams scored for the Lumberjacks just 1:34 into the second period, with assists from Bobby Lynch and Colby Bukes. That was the only goal of the period, and Muskegon led 3-1 after two.

The Lumberjacks rally around goalie keeper Brandon Bussi after securing the Game 2 win. Photo/Jason Goorman

Lumberjacks goalie Brandon Bussi was brilliant in the second period, making a series of highlight-reel saves to keep the home team on top.

But the never-quit Steel kept pressing the issue, scoring just 22 seconds into the third period on a tally by Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, making the score 3-2 and leading to another dramatic ending.

Chicago pulled goalie Justin Robbins with 2:03 left in regulation, and had a 6-on-5 skater advantage, but this time the Jacks kept them from getting the equalizer.

An icing call against Chicago with 13 seconds left put the faceoff back in the Steel’s zone, forced Chicago to put Robbins back in,  and pretty much sealed the victory for the Jacks.

Muskegon played well in short-handed situations all night. Chicago had four power-play opportunities, compared to none for the Jacks, but Muskegon successfully killed off three of four threats.

“We did some good things on the penalty kill and made some adjustments, but they are a skilled hockey team that is going to get some chances,” Hamilton said.

When asked if the best the Jacks can hope for is a split in Chicago, Hamilton said the team would like to do better.

“I am the one who likes to be realistic, so I told the guys let’s get a split in Chicago, but they laughed at me and said let’s get two,” the coach said. “I like their idea better.”