By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – The goal for every team is to be peaking around playoff time.

In a broad sense, the Muskegon Lumberjacks have been doing just that. Between Feb. 18 and April 9, they were the hottest team in the USHL, rattling off 16 wins in 18 games and playing with a ton of confidence.

Just a week and a half ago, they were contending for the Eastern Conference title and the Anderson Cup, which goes to the USHL team with the most points in the standings in the regular season.

But the very end of the regular season was a little bumpy.

The Jacks lost four of their last six games, including both of their final games last weekend in Chicago. Their pursuit of first place and the Anderson Cup was over.

It was still a great regular season for the Lumberjacks. They finished with a sparking 34-16-4 record for 72 points and second place in the Eastern Conference standings, nine points behind first-place Chicago. They finished second overall in the league in goal scoring.

Danil Gushchin controls the puck before making a pass for Muskegon. Photo/Leo Valdez

Now come the playoffs, when the Lumberjacks will quickly try to regain their momentum in a short best-of-three first round series against the Green Bay Gamblers this weekend.

All three games will be at Muskegon’s Mercy Health Arena. Game 1 will be Friday at 7:10 p.m. and Game 2 will be Saturday at the same time. Game 3, if necessary, will be on Sunday at 5 p.m.

The winner of the series will advance to the USHL Eastern Conference finals against the winner of the Chicago-Dubuque series. The loser will be done for the season.

The Gamblers had a 30-17-4 record and 64 points while playing three fewer games than the Jacks, due to a few COVID-related cancellations. Muskegon finished in second place and got the home-ice advantage in the playoffs by edging Green Bay in winning percentage.

The season series between the two teams has been heated and close, with a lot of rough, physical play. The teams are 5-5 against each other this season, and the Lumberjacks have had extreme highs and extreme lows against the Gamblers.

A low point to the season came on Feb. 11-13, when the Jacks lost three straight  home games ato Green Bay, 4-3, 4-0 and 5-3. But they returned the favor on March 19-20, when they beat the Gamblers on their home ice 3-2 and 6-2.

Lumberjacks forward Cameron Berg battles a Team USA defender for the puck. Photo/Eric Sturr

Hamilton said the Jacks are completely healthy and ready to go. He doesn’t think fans should read too much into the team’s recent mini-slump, saying he rested a lot of regular players on Friday and Saturday in Chicago and filled out the lineup with young affiliate prospects.

“We knew going into the weekend we couldn’t catch Chicago, so it was an opportunity to rest some bodies and give a lot of affiliates the chance to play,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are real happy with the way we ended. We are staying with who we are and carrying it into the playoffs.

“We are excited. We’ve had a couple good days of practice, and the guys are full of energy and ready to go. We are ready for Friday to get here.”

Both teams bring of a lot of talent to the table.

The Lumberjacks are a wide-open offensive team that are at their best when they have room on the ice to move, make plays and score goals. They were second in the USHL in goal scoring this season with 241.

The Lumberjacks have a lot of guys who can put the puck in the net, including five who finished in the top 20 of the USHL scoring race.

Lumberjacks’ goalie Nathan Reid makes a stop. Photo/Eric Sturr

Forward Danil Gushchin was fifth in the league with 32 goals and 32 assists for 64 points. Forward Cameron Berg was seventh with 27 goals and 31 assists for 58 points. Forward Cristophe Tellier was ninth with 21`goals, and 26 assists for 47 points, forward Tanner Kelly was 18th with 21 goals and 26 assists for 47 points, and  forward Dylan Wendt was 20th with 17 goals and 28 assists for 45 points.

The Jacks have not been as strong when it comes to preventing goals, giving up 209, which was the third most in the Eastern Conference, but only a handful away from being the fifth most.

Goalies Nate Reid (3.54 goals against average) and Jan Skorpik (3.60) have both been great at times, and have struggled at times, throughout the season. They have been sharing duties in recent months, and Hamilton said they will both continue to get opportunities during the playoffs, rather than having the team designate one starter for the postseason.

“We’re going to let each guy have opportunities and go with the hot hand,” the coach said. “The plan is to have both of them involved. In this first series we may have to play three straight days. To expect one guy to be great for three straight days is a lot to ask.”

Green Bay’s personnel and style is a good match for the Lumberjacks. The Gamblers don’t have a terrific offense. They were fifth out of six Eastern Conference teams with only 190 goals this season. They only have two players among the league’s top 20 scorers – defenseman Mason Lohrie, who was sixth with 19 goals, 40 assists for 59 points, and forward Jack Schmaltz, who was 11th with 19 goals and 34 assists for 57 points.

Cristophe Tellier digs the puck out along the boards for Muskegon. Photo/Jason Goorman

But they are very good defensively, allowing the fewest goals (180) in the conference, and have very good goaltending. Starting goalie Matt Davis has a goals against average of 3.34, which was seventh best in the league. Backup Aaron Randozzo has a 3.62 GAA.

To complicate matters further, the Gamblers play a very physical brand of hockey, designed to muck up the play and keep fast teams like Muskegon from executing their offense. The Gamblers are not afraid to take penalties to accomplish that goal. They led the Eastern Conference with 821 penalty minutes this season. Every other team in the conference had 689 or fewer.

The two biggest bad boys on the Green Bay roster are forward Camden Thiesing (123 penalty minutes) and defenseman Xan Gurney (117 minutes).

The clash of styles has led to some scrappy contests and dropped gloves between the teams this season. The key for the Lumberjacks will be sticking to their game and not being drawn into a weekend brawl, according to Hamilton.

“We are going to have to make sure we are finishing our checks, but we have to draw a line in the sand and not be undisciplined and get unnecessary penalties,” the coach said. “If you look at the box score after the games and there are four or five fights, that’s not the game we should be playing.

“They are going to muck it up. We need to stay out of the penalty box, because they have the best power play in the league.”