Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Muskegon clinches USHL playoff berth

By Christopher Heimerman

There was no pomp and circumstance, no cork-popping, no noisemakers going off at the Patrick household last night.

“There was no celebration,” Muskegon Lumberjacks head coach Kevin Patrick said. “We’re just continuing to focus on what’s ahead.”

Youngstown’s 7-0 loss to Des Moines on Tuesday clinched a Clark Cup playoff berth for the Jacks in their inaugural season in the United States Hockey League, but what’s ahead is a pursuit for the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and, of course, the second season.

Patrick has helped a long list of players reach the National Hockey League, and he draws optimism from the closing chapter of the 2009-10 NHL season.

“Last year, the Philadelphia Flyers needed to win in a shootout to get to the second season,” Patrick said, “and they went all the way to the finals. Anything can happen when you give yourself the opportunity to keep playing.”

Before the Jacks begin the postseason, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The Jacks’ magic number to clinch the fifth seed is two, meaning any combination of Jacks wins and Waterloo Black Hawks losses in regulation adding up to two would secure the fifth spot for Muskegon. If the Jacks clinch the fifth spot, they’ll travel to Ann Arbor to face Team USA, against which the Jacks are 3-3-1 this season. On Friday, the Jacks host the Chicago Steel, against which they’re 5-1-0 this season.

Despite Chicago’s struggles and the Jacks’ dominance of them, Jacks defenseman Alexx Privitera is aware of the game’s trap-like nature and knows his club won’t overlook the Steel.

“You don’t overlook them. You really can’t,” Privitera said. “That’s a must-win to lock up that fifth spot.”

Then the Jacks will wrap up their first USHL campaign against debatably their biggest rival, the Indiana Ice on Saturday. The teams split the first two games in the seven-game season set, but the Ice have won the last four matchups.

“It’d be nice to get a victory over those guys just in case we do run into them,” Privitera said. “It would send a message and give us a nice confidence boost.”

While the Jacks have only won two of their last nine, Patrick has been impressed with his club down the stretch.

“Two weekends ago, I liked us in a 2-1 win (over Waterloo) and a 2-1 loss (to Team USA),” Patrick said. “Last weekend, I really liked us in a 5-4 loss in Lincoln. Three of our last four games, I’ve liked a lot about what we’ve done, despite the results.”

Making the postseason is a culmination, says Privitera.

“It’s a long, 60-game year,” Privitera said. “There’s a lot of time to do what you need to do. We’ve got great players, a great staff and we’re focused on what we need to do these next couple of days before finishing the season.”

The Jacks’ body of work featured unimaginable highs and, of course, some lows. But that, Patrick says, is what comes with the territory of playing the premier junior hockey league in North America.

“The USHL is an absolute battle and there are no off nights,” Patrick says. “We’ve found a way to beat a lot of top teams and we’ve dropped games to teams below us, and that shows the parity. There isn’t anybody at the top of this league who’s saying they’re looking forward to their matchup.”

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