By Steve Gunn and Aaron Poling
MUSKEGON – It was only a matter of time before Rhett Pitlick started scoring in bunches.
The talented Muskegon Lumberjacks forward, who gave local fans a taste of what he could do offensively after being traded here last season, has been battling injuries that slowed his production through the first two months of the season.
But he looked like the old Pitlick on Tuesday, recording a hat trick with three unassisted goals to lead the Jacks to an impressive 7-1 victory over Dubuque at Muskegon’s Mercy Health Arena, where a few hundred were allowed for the first time this season.
The victory was the fourth in a row for the Lumberjacks over Dubuque this season. The Jacks swept the Fighting Saints in a three-game series in Dubuque earlier this month, and will try to make it five in a row on Wednesday night in a rematch in Muskegon.
The Lumberjacks are now 8-4-1 on the season, good for 17 points in the USHL Eastern Conference standings. They are tied for second place with Green Bay, four points behind first-place Chicago.
Tuesday’s victory was impressive, with the Jacks scoring three power play goals in the first period on a Dubuque five-minute major penalty, and rolling the rest of the way. It was also a continuation of an impressive rebound for Muskegon, which surrendered a late lead two games ago and lost to first-place Chicago at home, then bounced back the next night to beat the Steel in overtime.
Responding to a disappointing loss with two impressive wins is a good sign for Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton.
“There is a lot of character in that room,” Hamilton said about his team. “In regard to last year, obviously we had a lot of moves and didn’t do a lot of winning as the season went on. We were fighting and battling to stay at that .500 mark. These guys have learned to play the game, and how to compete.”
Tuesday’s game turned Muskegon’s way 6:30 into the first period, when Dubuque’s Reggie Millette was given a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for head contact with the Lumberjacks’ Ben Strimden.
The Jacks capitalized on the long power play, collecting goals from Quinn Hutson at the 8:32 mark, Danil Gushchin 17 seconds later, and Jack Williams at 10:08 to take a commanding 3-0 lead. Hutson added a second goal at the 16:02 mark, and Muskegon led 4-0 after one period.
Pitlick started putting on a show just 56 seconds into the second period, circling the net with the puck and tucking it past Dubuque goalie Hobie Hedquist. Pitlick added another goal at the 8:43 mark, snaring a puck out of the air, spinning and sending a wrist-shot from the left circle that beat Hedquist and make the score 6-0.
Dubuque broke the shutout early in the third period with a goal from Connor Kurth. Pitlick completed his hat trick, and the game’s score sheet, with a breakaway goal at the 12:44 mark.
“Obviously it was our first game with fans, and it was a great atmosphere,” said Pitlick, who now has six goals on the season. “I am glad they are back and I am happy to have a good game.
“I’ve had a couple of injuries, so that has been a little bit of a battle. The boys have been doing good. At the end of the day the team has been winning, and that’s all that matters.
“I am still in a little bit of a healing process. Every day I have been feeling better. I have created more chances as I feel better and the days go on.”
Hamilton is happy to have one of his top snipers back in form.
“It’s great to see him back healthy,” the coach said about Pitlick. “Early in the year he battled a couple different injuries. It’s good to see him back, his motor is going and he is scoring some goals.”
The Lumberjacks got great goaltending from Jan Skorpik, who stopped 23 of 24 Dubuque shots. Skorpik started the season in a backup role to Christian Stoever, but has started the last three games.
“Right now what we’re creating in net is some competition,” Hamilton said, when asked if Skorpik is now considered the starting goalie. “They are all battling, while one guy is playing well, the others are waiting on their opportunity. It’s a wide open competition and he (Skorpik) is carrying us through this stretch. Jan has been giving us a chance to win and we are really happy with how he’s playing right now.”
Jacob Guevin recorded two assists for Muskegon while Pitlick, Davis Pennington, Cameron Berg, Cristophe Tellier, Tanner Kelly and Brad Marek each had one.
Muskegon outshot Dubuque 28-24.