By Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – The second-place Muskegon Lumberjacks hosted the first-place Chicago Steel on Friday, with a golden opportunity to close the distance between themselves and the Steel.

They also had their top scorer in franchise history back in the lineup after a lengthy injury, which might have been expected to provide a winning edge.

But it just wasn’t so for the Jacks, who dropped a 6-3 contest to the Chicago Steel at Mercy Health Arena.

The Lumberjacks are now 21-12-3 on the season, good for 45 points and second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. They are now eight points behind with Chicago with 18 games remaining in the regular season.

Muskegon will look to bounce back Saturday night, and earn a split in the weekend series, with a home rematch against the Steel. Faceoff will be at 7:10 p.m.

“That’s a good hockey team,” said Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton about the Steel. “If you give them ice, they will make you pay the price. We showed we are not there yet, and we have a little more work to do.”

Kyle Auction handles the puck for Muskegon. Photo/Tonya Pardon

Star forward Danil Gushchin, who became the team’s all-time point producer earlier this season, returned to the lineup after missing the last seven games due to an injury.

Gushchin played well in his return, notching two assists for the Lumberjacks, but it wasn’t enough to offset the Steels’ output.

“I thought Gush (Gushchin) was really good,” said Hamilton. “He made some good offensive plays, but we have to clean things up defensively as a team.”

One ongoing problem persisted for the Jacks – power play production. Over the last nine games they had failed to score in 27 straight opportunities. Muskegon failed on its first three tries on Friday before finally ending the slump after 30 failed chances in a row.

Daniel Gushchin follows through after a shot for Muskegon. Photo/Tonya Pardon

But the power play goal wasn’t enough to propel the Lumberjacks, because Chicago responded by scoring two late second-period goals to take a three-goal advantage heading into the final period.

“It is something we work on all the time,” said Hamilton about the power play. “Pucks are going to go in hopefully in bunches now. Hopefully things get going now, because if you want to go anywhere in the playoffs, you have to be good at special teams.”

The Steel jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period with goals from Joe Miller (6:21), Matt Coronato (11:28) and Ian Moore (13:17). Coranato’s goal came when the Steel were playing a man short.

The Lumberjacks finally responded 14 seconds after Chicago’s third goal, at the 13:31 mark, with a tally by Jack Williams.

The Steel led 3-1 at the first intermission, despite being outshot by an 11-9 margin.

The Lumberjacks finally scored a power play goal 15:42 into the second period, when Cameron Berg scored on a loose puck in front of a wide-open net to cut Muskegon’s deficit to 3-2.

The Steel responded just 25 seconds later with a tally from Jack Babbage at the 16:07 mark, then added another goal by Sean Farrell at 17:54 to take a 5-2 lead.

The Steel added a goal from Jack Harvey at the 13:27 mark of the third period. The Lumberjacks closed out the scoring 19:15 into the final stanza on a goal by Dylan Wendt.

Nate Reid stopped 29 of 35 shots in net for the Lumberjacks. Muskegon was outshot by a 35-28 margin.