By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – If there’s one word that describes the Muskegon Lumberjacks this season, it’s streaky.

Alex Gaffney (10) leads the Lumberjack’s breakout. Photo/Leo Valdez

The Jacks started the season with four straight losses. Then they won seven straight. Then they went 2-11-2 over 15 games. Then they went 7-0-1.

Most recently they were an icy cold 2-6-1 over the past nine games, leading some fans to wonder if the season was unraveling for good.

That’s why Friday’s 4-3 victory over the Dubuque Fighting Saints at Mercy Health Arena in Muskegon was so important.

The Jacks came into the game barely clinging to sixth place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, the final spot to qualify for the playoffs. They only led seventh-place Cedar Rapids by one point in the standings.

With only 18 games remaining in the regular season, Muskegon can hardly afford any more long losing skids.

Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton is hoping Friday’s impressive victory, which broke a three-game losing streak, was the start of a positive trend that will carry the team into the playoffs.

Jack’s defenseman John Druskinis (27) clears the puck in front of goalie Jack Williams. Photo/Leo Valdez

“It was a huge win for us after not getting a point last weekend, which put us in a really bad spot,” said Hamilton, whose team improved to 19-21-4 on the season. “Hopefully tomorrow we can respond with the same effort we had tonight. We must play a full 60 minutes, which we haven’t done a ton. We want to make the playoffs and give these players that experience, which will go a long way toward a bright future.

“I thought we had one of our best weeks of practice, which translated into good hockey. We focused on puck protection and not giving up odd-man rushes.”

The star of the contest was second-year forward Alex Gaffney, who scored two second-period goals, including the go-head tally early in the period.

Getting the win in net was Jonathon Williams, who gave up an early goal to Dubuque, the kept the Fighting Saints off the scoreboard until the third period, after Muskegon had built a three-goal lead.

Williams stopped 29 of 32 shots to improve his record to 10-6-3 on the season.

Dubuque’s first goal came just 1:17 into the first period, from Stephen Halliday. The Jacks tied the score at 1-1 at the 16:40 mark when Danil Guschin scored a shorthanded goal.

The Lumberjacks exploded for three goals in the second period.

Gaffney started things off at the 9:27 mark with a high shot from in front of the net that got past Dubuque goalie Aidan McCarthy.

Rhett Pitlick followed at the 16:04 mark with a high, hard wrist shot from between the circles, making the score 3-1. Gaffney finished the offensive outburst just 58 seconds later on a rebound from a Guschin shot that was stopped, and the Lumberjacks led 4-1 after two periods.

“Both goals were great plays from my teammates,” said Gaffney, who now has 14 goals on the season. “The first one I got tip on, and the second one was from a good shot by Gushchin where I got the rebound. It was a huge win.”

Things got tight in the third period. Dubuque’s Antonio Venuto scored a power play goal at 9:11, then Riese Gaber found the net at 10:13, making the score 4-3 with half a period to play.

But Williams made some good saves down the stretch and the Lumberjacks held on for the victory.

Collecting assists for Muskegon were Christophe Fillion, Hank Kempf, Cam Berg, Tyler Dunbar, Dylan Wendt, Tanner Kelly, Dylan Gratton and Guschin.