By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – Now we will see what the Muskegon Lumberjacks are made of, based on how well they respond to a heartbreaking loss in a very important playoff game.

The Lumberjacks led the Chicago Steel 4-3 late in the third period of a hard-fought Game 1 of their USHL Eastern Conference finals at L.C. Walker Arena on Saturday.

Alex Yakovenko gets in front of the Chicago shot while goaltender No. 29 Brandon Bussi anticipates the rebound. Photo/Jason Goorman

They were within an eyelash of nailing down the crucial opening-game victory, but Chicago kept battling literally all the way to the end, and got the game-tying goal with a 6-on-4 skater advantage with 2.9 seconds remaining in regulation.

Then the Steel completed their dramatic comeback when Nick Abruzzese scored 5:16 into overtime, giving Chicago a 5-4 victory and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-5 series. The two teams will square off for Game 2 on Sunday at 5:15 p.m. in Muskegon. Game 3 will be Friday in Chicago.

The dramatic victory was definitely earned by Chicago, which never led until the final goal but refused to die all night long. The Lumberjacks led 2-0 after one period and 3-2 after two, but every time the Jacks scored down the stretch the Steel quickly answered.

“They are a great hockey team,” said Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton. “They play with a lot of speed and pace. We knew what we were getting into.

“I am not disappointed because I thought our guys played real well. We had a couple opportunities to put it away and we didn’t get it done. You’ve got to find a way to close it out in the end.

“Tomorrow turns into a huge hockey game for us. It’s a must win for us. We will have to find a way to get a split here and in Chicago and put it away in Game 5. We have to get over this really quickly.”

The Jacks gained a big advantage due to a slew of Chicago penalties late in the first period, and star forward Mikael Hakkarainen cashed in.

Muskegon’s Egor Afanasyev. Photo/jason Goorman

A Steel player was called for a double minor 4:00 penalty for high sticking, then another was whistled for the same infraction a few seconds later, giving the Jacks a 5-on-3 skater advantage.

Hakkarainen scored twice in that situation within a minute, at 17:41 and 18:28 of the first period. Both of his shots came from the faceoff circle to the left of the Chicago goal, and both came after quick passes from Alex Yankovenko. Bobby Lynch also assisted on each goal.

Muskegon outshot Chicago 17-8 in the first period and led 2-0 at the break.

But Chicago did not go away. The Steel scored just 1:06 into the second period on a goal by Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, making the score 2-1. Muskegon’s Jagger Joshua answered at the 7:03 mark, making it 3-1, but the Steel retaliated 41 seconds later on a goal by Josiah Slavin.

Muskegon led 3-2 after two periods.

Bobby Lynch shot from the corner of the Chicago zone early in the third period. The puck hit a Steel player and found its way into the net, putting the Lumberjacks up 4-2.

But again Chicago counterpunched, just 12 seconds later, with a goal Abruzzese, leaving the Lumberjacks with a 4-3 lead.

That lead almost held up until the end.

Muskegon’s Colby Bukes went to the penalty box with 1:56 remaining, giving Chicago a power play. Chicago put the puck in the net 10 seconds later, but the goal was waved off by the referees, saying it was kicked in.

The call stood after a long video review.

Chicago pulled goalie Justin Robbins with 1:07 remaining, gaining a 6-on-4 skater advantage.

The final minute of the game was played completely in the Muskegon zone. The Jacks nearly held on, but Slavin managed to put the puck in the net from close range with 2.9 seconds remaining, sending the game to overtime.

Abruzzese struck again early in overtime, ending the contest.

The Lumberjacks outshot Chicago 40-34. Muskegon goalie Brandon Bussi took the loss despite making a lot of great saves throughout the contest.