By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – Tired teams turn to their star players when their collective energy level is about used up.
They trailed by two goals midway through the second period, managed to tie the game up in the third, then went to a five-minute overtime period just hoping to escape with a win before getting some well-deserved rest.
That’s when leading scorer Danil Gushchin stepped into the spotlight. He broke in on the Youngstown goal with teammate Nick Portz less than a minute into OT, passed the puck back and forth with Portz as they closed in, then buried a high shot into the net at the 39 second mark, giving the Lumberjacks an exciting 4-3 victory at Mercy Health Arena.
The game-winning goal was also a landmark for Gushchin, because he tied the all-time Lumberjacks record for career goals. He now has 64, the same as Matt Iacopelli, a Jacks star who played in Muskegon in 2013-14 and 14-15.
Gushchin shrugged off the fact that he tied the record, but said he was happy the team gutted out a win.
“It’s all right, but we have to keep going and that was a good win,” Gushchin said after the game. “It’s all right that we were tired. It was a good game and a lot of fun.”
The Lumberjacks improved to 27-13-3 and remain in second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.
For Jacks Coach Mike Hamilton, the victory was a welcome way to end an exhausting but successful week, with the team posting a 5-1 record. He said the Jacks will have Sunday off, then only a light workout on Monday, before going at it hard again to prepare for upcoming games.
The Jacks will play the elite Team USA Under-18 squad three times next week – Wednesday on the road, Friday at home and Saturday on the road.
“We were not a little tired, but a lot tired,” Hamilton said. “They were kind of giving it to us there a little bit in stretches, but the good part is we stayed with it. (Goalie Nate) Reid made some timely saves for us and allowed us to have the opportunity to win it.”
The Jacks again had to fight to beat the scrappy Phantoms, who are buried in the conference basement but always seem to give Muskegon trouble.
Jack Williams opened the scoring with a power play goal 6:39 into the game, and the Jacks led 1-0 after one period.
Youngstown stole the momentum in the second period, outshooting Muskegon 15-8 and collecting three unanswered goals, from Grant Hindman, Dylan Gratton and Riley Duran to take a 3-1 lead.
Cristophe Tellier scored at the 13:59 mark for Muskegon, and the Jacks trailed 3-2 at the second break.
The visibly tired Lumberjacks managed to knot things up with a goal from Dylan Wendt at 6:54 of the third period, before Gushchin settled the issue with the breakaway goal early in overtime.
Youngstown actually had a golden opportunity to win the game by breaking in on Muskegon goalie Nate Reid and getting a good shot off just seconds into overtime, before Gushchin and Portz found themselves on a two-on-zero breakaway that led to the winning goal.
Reid got the win for the Jacks, stopping 29 of 32 Youngstown shots.