By Dave Hart and Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Two key components for a championship hockey team are great defense and solid goaltending.

Throughout the regular season, the Muskegon Lumberjacks struggled at times in both of those categories.

But when it was time to step it up during a challenging first round playoff series against a great defensive opponent, the Lumberjacks demonstrated they can be good in those areas.

On Saturday, Muskegon buckled down on defense and kept the game tied until late in the third period, then scored two goals in the last five minutes to defeat the Green Bay Gamblers 3-1 at Mercy Health Arena.

The winning goal was scored by forward Cristophe Tellier with 4:55 left in the game. Cameron Berg added an empty-net goal with 45 seconds left.

Christophe Tellier looks down to control a pass for Muskegon. Photo/Leo Valdez

The victory completed a two-game series sweep for Lumberjacks, who now advance to the USHL Eastern Conference finals against the Chicago Steel.

The best two-of-three series will start Friday night at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Illinois, before moving back to Muskegon next Saturday night for Game 2.

Game 3, if necessary, will be Monday in Chicago. The winner of the series will represent the Eastern Conference in the 2021 Clark Cup finals.

Muskegon goaltender Jan Skorpik was a hero for the Lumberjacks for the second straight night, stopping 26 of 27 shots on Saturday, after stopping 21 of 23 in the Game 1 victory on Friday.

“There was some pressure, but I was trying not to think about it,” Skorpik said. “I knew we would win. I trusted the guys in front of me.”

Bradley Marek leans against the board during a break in the action. Photo/Leo Valdez

Muskegon Coach Mike Hamilton said Skorpik, who has been sharing goaltending duties with Nate Reid in recent months, has been getting better and better as the season goes by.

“He just looks more confident each game.” Hamilton said. “He was phenomenal.”

The Jacks had to work hard for their goals in both games against Green Bay, which plays a tough, physical defensive style that effectively curbed Muskegon’s usual high-scoring offense.

The Lumberjacks had a glorious opportunity to score the first goal early in the contest when they had a two-man advantage for 54 seconds late in the first period, but failed to connect.

Neither team scored in the first period. The Jacks had a 10-5 advantage in shots on goal.

Muskegon defenseman No. 10 Jacob Guevin leads the puck out of the Jacks zone. Photo/Leo Valdez

The Lumberjacks ended the scoring drought 6:24 into the second period when Danil Gushchin skated down the right wing and snapped a shot over Gambler goaltender Matt Davis’ right shoulder.

The Gamblers had an opportunity to tie the contest up after Muskegon was called for a pair of penalties 36 seconds apart, giving Green Bay a two-man advantage for 1:24 of the second period.

But the Lumberjacks successfully killed off both infractions, keeping their 1-0 lead heading into the third period.

The Gamblers tied the game at the 5:27 mark of the third on a goal by Mason Lohrei.

Kyle Aucoin gets his stick between Green Bay’s No. 13 Brody Lamb. Photo/Leo Valdez

But the Lumberjacks kept grinding and pulled ahead for good at the 15:05 mark when Tellier connected on a rebound in front of the Green Bay net, following a shot by Nick Portz, giving Muskegon a 2-1 lead.

“(Portz) put in on net, I got a good bounce, and I just buried it,” Tellier said.

“We worked hard all game long – it was pretty tough (to score). They shut the middle down and we had to keep working.”

Tellier played most of the game battling an injury after taking a puck to the foot early in the game.

“I didn’t take my skate off because I was sure it was going to get bigger,” he said. “I was bruised, but I’ll be fine.”

Muskegon put the nail in the Gambler coffin with 45 seconds remaining with the empty-net goal by Berg.

“We gave up a goal, but the best part was how we responded,” Hamilton said. “We didn’t mope about it. We dominated the next six or seven minutes and got ourselves a goal. That’s the playoffs, right? We hung in there, stuck with it and got it done.”

Dylan Wendt, Alex Gagne, Jack Williams, Portz, Tanner Kelly and Quinn Hutson each notched an assist for the Lumberjacks.

Muskegon outshot the Gamblers by a 34-27 margin.