By Dave Hart and Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Beating the teams they are supposed to beat is becoming increasingly important for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

The Jacks have only 14 games left in the regular season, and are in a close battle with Green Bay for second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. The second-place team will get home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, which will be a three-game series, with all of the games played at the higher seed’s arena.

Nine of the Jacks’ remaining games are against teams that are not likely to make the playoffs, and beating them is crucial is they want to compete for first place in the conference, or at least nail down second..

Muskegon opened a three-game home series on Thursday with the Youngstown Phantoms, one of the teams on the outside looking in.

Cameron Berg battles for the puck along the boards for Muskegon. Photo/Jason Goorman

After a slow start the Lumberjacks found a way to take the opener of the series, defeating the Phantoms 7-5 at Mercy Health Arena. The Jacks blew a two-goal lead in the third period, but got two late goals to ice the win, including the game-winner from Nick Portz with just under a minute left.

The Lumberjacks are currently 26-12-3 on the season, good for 55 points and second place in the conference. Muskegon is seven points behind the first place Chicago Steel and three points ahead of third place Green Bay.

Muskegon, currently on a five-game winning streak, will host the Phantoms again on Friday and Saturday night.

“There is no such thing as an easy game in our league,” said Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton. “But we got to keep playing and try to find a way to win hockey games.

“We were really good in the second period. We had them pinned in the zone and that was our best period of the game, but in the third period we took our foot off the pedal. We had too many turnovers and our goalie play was average. The good part is occasionally you get off your game and still find a way to win, and we did that tonight.”

The Phantoms opened the scoring with a power play goal from Cole Burtch at the 3:15 mark of the first period.

No. 7 Philip Tresca brings the puck around the Youngstown net for Muskegon. Photo/Jason Goorman

The Lumberjacks responded with two goals 25 seconds apart to take a 2-1 advantage.

Cristophe Tellier put Muskegon on the board with a slap shot from the right circle at the 9:05 mark of the first period. Then Danil Gushchin then put the puck in the net on a shot from the left circle at the 9:30 mark, giving the Jacks a 2-1 lead.

The Phantoms pulled their starting goaltender, Colin Purcell, after Gushchin’s goal, in favor of Mattias Sholl.

Youngstown snuck the puck in the Muskegon net just as the buzzer sounded at the end of the first period, tying the game 2-2. Georgil Merkulov was credited with the goal.

The Lumberjacks had a chance to regain their advantage at the 5:34 mark of the second period with a penalty shot by captain Dylan Wendt, who was tripped while charging toward the goal on a breakaway. But Wendt failed to connect on his 1-on-1 chance against Sholl.

The Lumberjacks took a 3-2 lead after Jack Williams scored on a shot from the low right circle at the 15:13 mark of the second period. Youngstown responded 23 seconds later with Burtch’s second goal of the contest.

Muskegon regained its lead at the 17:05 mark of the second period on a beautiful goal by Cameron Berg, who took a pass from Jacob Guevin from the left boards and shot from right in front of the Phantoms’ net.

The Lumberjacks led 4-3 heading into the final period and held a 30-12 advantage in shots.

Muskegon added to its lead with a goal from Bradley Marek just 54 seconds into the third period, and seemed to be cruising to the win. But Youngstown wasn’t done fighting.

Burtch completed a hat trick with his third goal of the contest 1:56 into the third period, making the score 5-4. Youngstown then tied the game on a goal from Jack Larrigan at the 9:51 mark.

Portz scored the game-winning goal for the Jacks with 59 seconds left in regulation after taking a pass from Gushchin while skating down the center of the ice.

Williams closed out the scoring with an empty net tally with 29 seconds remaining.

The Lumberjacks outshot Youngstown by a commanding 45-23 margin. Muskegon goaltender Jan Skorpik stopped 18-of-23 shots on net.