By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – Some games they’ve been scoring a lot of goals.
Other games, like on Friday night, they haven’t scored many.
But in both situations, the Muskegon Lumberjacks have been finding ways to win, and what once looked like a lost season keeps getting more promising by the week.
The Jacks hosted Cedar Rapids in the first of a two-game weekend series on Friday. The score was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation and at the end of overtime, taking the Lumberjacks to their first OT shootout of the season.
The shootout even went to overtime – six rounds instead of the scheduled three – but Tanner Kelly finally settled the issue for the Jacks, tucking the puck past Cedar Rapids goalie Derek Mullahy to give Muskegon a thrilling 3-2 victory in front of 2,256 fans at Mercy Health Arena.
“I just took my time with it, just like I do in practice every day, and I put it in the back of the net,” said an excited Kelly after the game. “It was a team effort, so it just wasn’t on me, but I’m proud of the win tonight and hope we get another tomorrow.”
The Lumberjacks won their third straight game and improved their record to 15-15-3 on the season. They moved into fourth place on their own in the USHL’s Eastern Conference standings with 33 points.
The Jacks will host Cedar Rapids again on Saturday at 7:15 p.m.
Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton, whose team is now 6-2-1 in the last eight games, said a much improved defense has been the difference, clearing the zone to allow the forwards to perform their magic in high scoring games, and holding other teams down in low scoring contests.
“The guys went home during Christmas and came back with a lot of energy,” the coach said about his defensemen. “These guys are learning on the job, and they just keep getting better.”
The other hero of the game was goalie Jonathan (previously known as Jack) Williams, who dualed Mullahy throughout the game, with both netminders coming up with huge saves.
Some of Williams’ best work came in the regular overtime period, when the Jacks spent two out of the five minutes a man short due to a penalty. Williams made two huge glove saves in OT, then was brilliant in stopping five of six Cedar Rapids attempts in the shootout to claim his fourth straight victory.
Williams also had both wins last weekend in Madison, and has only given up five goals in the last nine periods of regulation hockey.
“He is playing well and that’s all it is,” Hamilton said about Williams, who has been sharing time in goal with teammate Eric Green. “Green has done nothing wrong, but at this point it is probably Williams’ net to lose. He is doing well and working hard at practice.”
The Lumberjacks drew first blood in the first period when Danil Gushchin took a quick pass from behind the net from Rhett Pitlick and scored his 15th goal at the 9:10 mark. Muskegon led 1-0 at the first break.
Nikolia Mayorov scored for Cedar Rapids at 2:16 of the second period, tying the game at 1-1. The Lumberjacks answered just nine seconds later when Jan Lasak scored with a hard shot from the top of the right circle, and the Jacks led 2-1 after two.
Cedar Rapids’ Max Sasson knotted the score up again at 6:21 of the third period, forcing the game to overtime.
The OT period had only three skaters per team, but the Roughriders gained a 4-on-3 advantage at the 1:19 mark when Muskegon’s Iivari Rasanen tripped a Cedar Rapids player who was breaking in alone on the Jacks’ net.
The penalty turned out to be a good one, because the Roughriders may have scored and ended the game, and Williams and the Jacks skillfully killed off the power play. The OT period ended without a goal, leading to the shootout, which ended up having six players from each team going one-on-one with the opposing goalie.
Cedar Rapids’ Grant Silianoff scored on his team’s first attempt. The Roughriders held on to that 1-0 advantage going into the last half of the third round, and would have won if the Jacks had failed to score.
But Guschin found the net for Muskegon and tied things up 1-1. Williams then stopped three more Roughrider shooters, and the Jacks also failed to score until Kelly took his turn in the last half of the sixth round and put the puck in the net, ending the game.
Muskegon had a 27-26 advantage in shots on goal in regulation, and Cedar Rapids had a 2-1 edge in overtime.