By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – For any Muskegon Lumberjacks fans who were alarmed by Saturday night’s 8-1 loss to the Chicago Steel in the last game of the regular season – don’t fret.

Evan Orr takes Chicago’s No. 9 Mackie Samoskevich into the boards. Photo/Jason Goorman

The Lumberjacks had 12 scratches from their regular roster, partially because it was a meaningless game for Muskegon, and the only thing that could have occurred was an injury to a valuable player for no good reason at all.

The fact is that the Lumberjacks have been trending pretty well for the Clark Cup playoffs, which begin next week. After sputtering through most of March with a worrisome 3-5-1 record, the Jacks won four games in a row prior to Saturday.

They finished the regular season with a shining 41-17-4 record, won the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference championship, and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Muskegon will open the playoffs next Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at home in the Eastern Conference semifinals, against an opponent yet to be determined. Game 2 will be Sunday at home at 5:15 p.m.

The teams that have to compete in the first round – Dubuque vs. Youngstown and Team USA vs. Cedar Rapids – will play short 2 of 3 series this week, then the Jacks will find out who their opponent will be for their 3 of 5 series.

Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton said the team is healthy and once again playing well, just in time for the postseason.

“It was nice to see everything get on track,” Hamilton said about the four-game winning streak prior to Saturday. “We had some guys scoring some goals, so from that side we are really excited with where we are at. And we thought that when we were going through those tough times where we weren’t scoring goals, that we learned how to play better defensively. We think that tough stretch is going to benefit us come playoff time.”

Hamilton took the blame for the rough stretch, and said it’s all in the past.

Sam Miller takes Chicago’s No. 19 Travis Treloar into the Lumberjacks’ bench. Photo/Jason Goorman

“A lot of it was my fault because we were focused on the wrong things,” the coach said. “We were so focused on being that number one seed, so players were squeezing their stick a little bit. We finally realized we are in the playoffs, and if we have to play in the first round we have to play in the first round.

“We have a full slate ready to go for the playoffs. We have a good roster going in, with full health.”

Missing from the Jacks lineup on Saturday against Chicago were most of their big guns – leading scorer Egor Afanasyev, leading defensive scorer Alex Yakovenko, forward Mikael Hakkarainen and captains Colby Bukes and Nolan Sullivan, to name just a few.

It showed on the ice, because the Jacks were completely outplayed by Chicago, a team that desperately needed a win to seal up second place in the Eastern Conference and a first-round playoff bye.

Chicago led 2-1 after the first period. Luke Reid and Cole Quisenberry scored for the Steel while Bobby Lynch notched his 21st goal of the season for Muskegon.

The game really got away in the second period, when the Jacks were outshot 16-5. Adam Robbins and Owen Power scored to put Chicago up 4-1, then Nick Abrussese found the net on a penalty shot after being tripped on a breakaway.

Chicago had a 5-on-3 power play in the third period, and responded by scoring twice within 11 seconds. Abrussese and Mattieu De St. Phalle were responsible for the goals. Then Quisenberry added another goal, and the Steel drove home with a big win.

Muskegon goalie Ryan McInchak stopped 22 of 27 shots before being replaced after the second period. Cullen DeYoung, who played in one previous game this season, finished the game.

Chicago had a 35-22 shot advantage.