By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – All season long, the Chicago Steel have been tearing up the United States Hockey League.

The Steel finished the regular season with a gaudy 38-11-3 record. They captured first place in the league’s Eastern Conference and won the Anderson Cup, which goes to the team with the most points in the standings in the regular season.

The Steel had by far the most goals of any team in the league, and have the top four scorers in the league.

On paper, they seem like an easy pick to win the playoffs and the coveted Clark Cup.

But one team has given Chicago fits all season. The Muskegon Lumberjacks are responsible for 5 of the Steel’s 11 losses, and the teams have a 5-5 record against each other this season.

That’s why the Eastern Conference finals between Muskegon and Chicago, which begin with Game 1 in Chicago on Friday night, is being viewed with much anticipation.

The series will be a short 2-of-3 affair, with the winner advancing to the Clark Cup finals against the Eastern Conference representative, which will be either Fargo or Sioux City.

Muskegon is hunting for its first Clark Cup in its 11 years in the league.

Muskegon Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton. Photo/Jason Goorman

Game 2 will be in Muskegon on Saturday at 7:10 p.m. Game 3, if necessary, will be back in Chicago on Monday night.

The Lumberjacks will be facing a different type of playoff challenge when they play the Steel. In last week’s conference semifinals, they eliminated Green Bay in two straight games, by scores of 3-2 and 3-1. The series was a hard-hitting, defensive clash, because that’s the style that Green Bay plays.

Chicago, which swept Dubuque in the first round of the playoffs, plays a much faster, wide-open type of game, which is actually the style that the Lumberjacks prefer.

The Steel have a fearsome lineup that features the top four scorers in the league – forwards Sean Farrell (29 goals and an amazing 72 assists), Matt Coronado (48 goals, 37 assists), Josh Doan (31 goals, 39 assists) and Erik Middendorf (37 goals, 36 assists).

The Jacks can’t match that, but they have some big scorers of their own. Forward Danil Gushchin finished fifth in the league scoring race with 32 goals and 32 assists, Cameron Berg was seventh with 27 goals and 31 assists, and Cristophe Tellier was ninth with 22 goals and 32 assists,

Chicago was first in the league in goals with 265 in the regular season, while Muskegon was second with 241.

The teams scored a combined 18 goals in their first meeting of the season back in November, and since then only one of their matchups has produced fewer than eight goals.

So fans can expect a lot of fast-paced action and scoring when the two teams put the final touches on their heated season-long rivalry.

“Chicago plays a wide-open style of hockey, which we all know,” said Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton. “We are one of the teams that can skate with them. Not many teams can. We are going to have to limit their scoring chances, and they are a team that will give you scoring opportunities, as well. When we get those chances we have to capitalize. The best defense is sometimes the best offense.”

Jan Skorpik, who played two good games in goal for the Jacks in the first round of the playoffs. Photo/Leo Valdez

The Lumberjacks are certainly not intimidated by the Steel. They chased Chicago in the standings for most of the regular season, and actually had a chance to overtake the Steel and win the conference toward the end of the campaign.

Muskegon lost that chance, and settled for second place in the conference, due to a few unanticipated losses in the final week of the regular season. But the Jacks will be more than happy to trade that outcome with a series victory in the playoffs.

Revenge will be a factor for the Jacks, because Chicago eliminated Muskegon from the playoffs in 2018 and 2019.

“The guys are ready to go, they are confident and excited,” Hamilton said. “This is a team that’s had the Lumberjacks’ number (in the playoffs) for a long time, so now it’s time. We are ready to step up. We know the ultimate goal.”

On the surface, Muskegon would seem to be at a disadvantage in the shorts series, because Chicago will host the opening game, and the final game if it’s necessary. But the Lumberjacks have won twice in five games in Chicago this season, and don’t seem to be troubled by playing on the Steel’s rink.

“We really don’t fear going on the road,” Hamilton said. “Truthfully we enjoy it. We just have to figure out how to win one on the road and take care of business at home. We have to win at least one of the games there. Winning both games on the road would be a big ask. We know the importance of winning the home game, so we have to figure out a way to win Game 1 or 3.”