By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
The score-in-bunches approach worked well for the Jacks in two games earlier in this busy week. On Tuesday they outgunned the powerful Team USA Under-18 squad 7-6, then did the same on Thursday, beating Youngstown 7-5.
But Muskegon’s offense fell short on Friday, when the Jacks battled back from an early three-goal deficit but suffered a disappointing 6-5 loss to last-place Youngstown at Mercy Health Arena, despite outshooting the Phantoms 44-24.
The loss ended a five-game winning streak for the Lumberjacks, and wasted two-goal performances by Quinn Hutson and Cristophe Telliier.
The Lumberjacks and Phantoms will compete their three-game weekend series on Saturday night in Muskegon.
The Lumberjacks are now 26-13-3, good for 55 points and second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference standings with 13 games left in the regular season. They remain four points ahead of third-place Green Bay and seven behind first-place Chicago.
Youngstown, the last-place team in the conference, improved to 10-25-5.
The loss could probably be attributed to fatigue, at least to some degree, because the Jacks were playing their third game in four days. That almost certainly affected their starting goalie, Jan Skorpik, who had played every minute of the past five games, all in the last week.
He gave up three goals on Youngstown’s first nine shots on Friday, and was lifted in favor of Nate Reid, who had similar troubles, surrendering two goals on the first three shots he faced.
Reid also had an alibi, because Friday was his first game back after missing five games with a severely infected finger.
But the bottom line is that the Jacks, who are second in the USHL in scoring, are fifth in the league in goals allowed. Skorpik and Reid have had their share of outstanding games, but both have also struggled at times, and neither has clearly claimed the starting job with the playoffs drawing near.
Reid ranks 11th in the league among goalies with a 3.43 goals against average, while Skorpik ranks 17th with a 3.85 GAA.
“Tonight we lost a hockey game because we weren’t great in the net and we weren’t great defensively,” said Muskegon Coach Mike Hamilton. “We gave up some numbers and didn’t get a save to bail us out. At the end of it we gave ourselves a chance, but you can’t be down 4-1 and expect to come back too often.”
Another issue for the Jacks this season has been power-play effectiveness, or lack thereof, and it was a factor on Friday. They were 0-for-3 with a man advantage, losing several golden opportunities to score important goals.
The Jacks rank 11th out of 14 teams in the league in power play scoring.
“We made it a 5-4 game (in the third period), then we went on a power play and had a huge opportunity and didn’t get it done,” Hamilton said. “We lost the special teams war, and it’s something we continually working on, but at end of the day that’s not what lost the game. We weren’t good defensively and we didn’t make good stops.”
The game was a struggle from the beginning for the Jacks, who quickly found themselves trailing 3-0 midway through the first period. Scoring for Youngstown were Riley Doran, who had a shorthanded goal at the 5:45 mark, followed by Cole Burtch (10:03) and Sergia Kuznetzov (12:47).
Owen Mehlenbacher found the net for Muskegon 52 seconds left in the period, and Youngstown led 3-1 at the first break.
Jaden Grant gave the Phantoms a 4-1 lead with a goal at 1:15 of the second period. Hutson answered with a goal for the Jacks less than a minute later, then Duran made the score 5-2 with a tally at the 4:26 mark. Tellier scored for the Jacks at 7:05, and Youngstown led 5-3 after two periods.
The situation looked more promising for Muskegon after Tellier scored his second goal at 4:06 of the third period, making it a one-goal game. But Youngstown’s Yusako Ando scored at the 9:41 mark to restore the Phantoms’ two-goal edge.
Hutson scored his second goal with just over two minutes remaining, but the Lumberjacks still fell a goal short. The Jacks wasted two power play opportunities in the third period, when a goal on either one would have made a huge difference.
“I think it was lack of preparation and lack of respect for our opponent,” Hamilton said. “With 12 minutes left in the second we decided we were going to be the better team, and we just ran out of time.”