By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks are a team in a tight battle for a playoff spot, but they sure didn’t play like it on Friday night.

The Jacks were listless for one period, then had their chances but failed to capitalize in the second and third periods, and ended up losing 3-0 to the last-place Madison Capitols at Muskegon’s Mercy Health Arena.

Robert McCollum defends in front of the net as goalie Jack Williams follows the puck. Photo/Mitchell Dixon MSD Photography

It was the first shutout loss of the season for the Jacks, and continued their recent cold streak. They are now 1-3-1 in their last five games, with two of those losses coming on their home ice.

If there was one bit of good news for the Lumberjacks, it’s that Madison goalie Christian Stoever won’t be coming back to town this season. Friday’s win was the second impressive victory he has posted in Muskegon since the Christmas break.

The first came on Dec. 27, when Stoever stopped 34 of 35 shots to help the Capitols beat the Jacks 3-1. On Friday he was even better, stopping all 49 shots he faced to post his first shutout of the season.

Madison’s two wins on Lumberjacks ice seem extra impressive, when you consider the team’s record. The Capitols are now 8-28-3 on the season, which is by far the worst in the USHL.

Muskegon, which lost its second straight game, is now 17-18-4. The Jacks came into the game tied for fifth place in the Eastern Conference with Youngstown, and only four points ahead of seventh-place Cedar Rapids.

Only the top six teams in the conference make the playoffs. That means the Jacks will have to play much better in the final 23 games of the regular season to make the cut.

“We didn’t come out in the first period and we let our opponents gain confidence,” said Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton, whose team will visit Madison on Saturday and Chicago on Sunday. “We are not good enough to come out and not play hard against anybody. I don’t care if it’s the first-place team or the last-place team.

Rhett Pitlick gets in front of the Madison defense. Photo/Mitchell Dixon MSD Photography

“These are important points (in the standings) for us, and we should have treated tonight like playoff hockey. I was disappointed in our effort. Just like previous weekends we are not starting off on the right foot.”

Hamilton admitted that his team’s lackluster performance, particularly early in the game, may have been related to this week’s trade of captain Oliver MacDonald, one of the Lumberjacks’ top offensive players and popular figure in the locker room.

MacDonald, who scored four goals in a game earlier this season, was sent to the Fargo Force for two highly-regarded prospects who may or may not join the team this season, but are expected to play big roles in 2020-21.

“Tonight there was something definitely missing with the guys,” the coach said. “(The trade) happened just a couple days ago. It took us a little bit to get going, like we lacked a little bit of energy and leadership and speed.

“As the game went on the guys were stepping up and challenging each other. They were giving us a chance at the end, but took too long to get going.”

The statistics say the Lumberjacks should have won the game easily. They outshot Madison 49-24, including 26-5 in the third period. But none of those shots found the Capitols’ net.

The Jacks were quiet in the first period and were outshot 12-10. Madison’s Bockton Baker scored the only goal of the period at the 4:39 mark.

The Capitols took a 2-0 lead at 15:32 of the second period on a goal by Stepan Pokorny. Muskegon had a 13-7 edge in shots, and two power play opportunities, but still failed to score.

The Jacks came out flying in the third period, with a huge advantage in shots, but Stoever stopped everything they threw at him. Madison finished the scoring with an empty-net goal by Carson Bantle with 15.8 seconds left in the game.