By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Few teams in the United States Hockey League can keep up with the elite Team USA Under-18 squad.

But the soaring Muskegon Lumberjacks certainly can, which they demonstrated over and over again on Tuesday night.

The Under-18s are an elite group of junior hockey players selected to play in the national development program. They play part of their schedule every winter against USHL opponents, but don’t participate in the league playoffs, because they would probably win the Clark Cup every year.

The Under-18’s put on their usual display of speed and offensive skill against the Lumberjacks on Tuesday, grabbing an early lead and staying ahead for most of the first two periods.

Lumberjacks’ Quinn Hutson finds the back of the net over the outstretched arm of USA goalie Gibson Homer. Photo/Eric Sturr

But the Lumberjacks stayed with them goal-for-goal, finally pulled ahead late in the second period, and ended up winning an exciting, fast-paced contest 7-6 at Mercy Health Arena, in a makeup game that was postponed two weekends ago due to COVID.

The Jacks have now won four straight games – including a two-game sweep over Green Bay last weekend – and have won 9 of their last 10. They are 25-12-3, and the latest victory pulled them back into sole possession of second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference with 53 points, two points ahead of Green Bay. Chicago leads the division with 62 points.

Lumberjacks’ Cameron Berg battles the USA defender for the puck in the offensive zone. Photo/Eric Sturr

‘That’s a damned good hockey team,” Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton said about the Under-18s, who beat the Jacks twice in two games earlier this season. “They have a lot of talent throughout their lineup, and they force you to play a different type of hockey.

“It’s been a crazy week. We played in Green Bay, where the play was tight and there were a bunch of fights, and today we came in and played on wide-open ice. It was good to see we can adjust to different styles.”

There wasn’t much defense in the contest, with the teams flying up and down the rink and trading goals for the first two periods. That was fine with the Lumberjacks, because they have as much offensive firepower as anybody in the league, and got a chance to show it off.

Lumberjacks’ Christophe Tellier eyes the net as he glides through the high slot. Photo/Eric Sturr

Forward Quinn Hutson led the way with two goals. Cristophe Tellier added a goal and two assists, while Davis Pennington, Cameron Berg,  Danil Gushchin and Dylan Wendt all had single goals.

Forward Jack Williams also had a big night for Muskegon with four assists, while defenseman Jacob Guevin added two.

It the Lumberjacks can score like that against the Under-18s, the rest of the league will surely take notice as the playoffs approach. The Jacks have 14 regular season games remaining before the Clark Cup playoffs begin in a little over a month.

Three of those games will come right away, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at home against Youngstown. That means the Jacks will play four games in five days, a challenge for any team.

“We’re getting there,” Hamilton said, when asked if his team is playoff ready. “We’re starting to play the right way, and guys have stepped into roles. This weekend will be a good test for us, because we will have played four games in five days. We’re facing a hard-working Youngstown team. They may not have a lot of wins, but if we let our guard down or lose focus we could get bit in the butt.

“Hopefully the guys build off from this and have a great weekend.”

Lumberjacks’ Tanner Kelly battles USA’s Sean Behrens for a bouncing puck in front of the net. Photo/Eric Sturr

The teams literally traded goals in the first two periods, and the scoring came at a rapid rate.

Team USA’s Sasha Pastujov scored just 41 seconds into the game, then Pennington scored at the 2:38 mark on a shot from the point to make it 1-1.

Team USA’s Logan Cooley scored at 3:22 of the first period, then Tellier took a pass in front of the net and chipped it in at 13:58 to tie the game at 2-2.

Team USA’s Chaz Lucius scored at 7:45 to put the visitors on top again, then Hutson scored his first goal at the 18:01 mark.

The score was tied 3-3 after one period, with Team USA having a 13-11 shot advantage.

The same pattern continued for the first half of the second period. Team USA got a goal from Isaac Howard, then the Jacks responded when Tellier made a nice pass to Hutson in front of the net, and he buried it to make the score 4-4.

Lumberjacks’ Davis Pennington leans on a shot from the point and scores Muskegon’s first goal. Photo/Eric Sturr

Lucius scored his second goal for Team USA at the 9:25 mark, giving the visitors a 5-4 edge, then Berg took a centering pass from Wendt and scored at 12:35, tying things up again at 5-5.

Gushchin broke the goal-for-goal pattern when he scored on a nice wraparound shot at 18:28 of the second period, and the Jacks skated off with a 6-5 lead at the second break.

The scoring slowed way down in the third period. Both teams had one power play opportunity and failed to cash in, and Team USA was forced to pull its goalie as the clock ran down to get an extra attacker. The strategy backfired with 1:03 remaining when Wendt scored an open-net goal to put the Jacks up 7-5.

Lucius completed a hat trick with a goal with 40 seconds remaining, and Team USA pressured the Jacks all the way to the end, but the home team held on to the slim lead and skated off with the win.

“The guys adjusted after the first period,” Hamilton said. “In the first period we gave up a lot, but then we settled in and played some good hockey. We didn’t get frustrated and stayed with the game.”

Muskegon goalie Jan Skorpik started out badly, giving up three goals in the first four shots he faced, but got stronger as the game wore on. He was particularly sharp in the third period, stopping seven of eight shots to help preserve the win.

The Lumberjacks had a 33-30 advantage in shots on goal.