MUSKEGON – The Madison Capitols are not very popular with other teams in the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference.
The mediocre squad that finished in fifth place in the regular season standings has turned into a giant-killer in the Clark Cup playoffs.
The Capitols eliminated fourth-place Youngstown and first-place Chicago in the first two rounds of the playoffs, putting everyone on notice that they were for real.
Some Muskegon Lumberjacks fans were excited to play Madison instead of mighty Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals, but that turned out to be a foolish notion.
The Jacks became the Capitols’ latest victim on Thursday, falling 8-4 in the decisive Game 5 of the Eastern Conference championship series at Mercy Health Arena.
Madison moves on to the Clark Cup finals against Sioux City, while the Lumberjacks end the season still in search of their first league championship in team history.
The Jacks led 1-0 after the first period, creating a buzz among the big crowd that came out for the big game. But the Capitols rallied with three unanswered goals in both the second and third periods and put an end to the Jacks’ season.
Muskegon’s offense finally came alive down the stretch of the third period, scoring three of the last five goals of the game, but it was too little, too late.
The Lumberjacks, who finished with a 6-3 record in the playoffs, have now been eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals for three straight seasons.
“That speed is tough to handle, there is no doubt,” Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton said about the Capitols. “They have speed and great goaltending. That’s a great hockey team. I am not disappointed in our guys. I thought we gave it our all and today wasn’t our prettiest or cleanest, but at the end of the day it was a great season.”
The Lumberjacks’ season was certainly fun and entertaining.
The Jacks started out in a terrible slump last fall and fell to last place in the conference for several weeks. Then they got very hot from late November through January and climbed all the way to first place for a few days.
The Jacks cooled off down the stretch of the regular season and finished in third place, but then turned on the jets in the playoffs.
They swept both Cedar Rapids and Dubuque 2 games to none in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and went the full five games with a Madison team that simply refuses to die.
The Jacks won the first game 5-2 and led in the second game 3-1, before Madison rallied to win in overtime, 4-3.
Muskegon returned the favor with a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 3, then lost Game 4 by a 3-1 score, setting up the Game 5 showdown for the conference title on Thursday.
Unfortunately Game 5 was all Madison.
“Are we disappointed we lost? Sure,” Hamilton said. “But you look at the whole season and how these guys developed and how far they came, it really is a special group. We ran into the wrong team at the wrong time.
“The season started off so poorly, we went from last to first in a roller coaster type of year. I will remember how we learned from our mistakes and the adversity we went through as a group. Everyone stuck together, we didn’t point fingers and we didn’t start making trades. We stayed focused and on plan and we made it to the conference finals.”
The Lumberjacks had three power play opportunities in the first period and cashed in on one when Joey Larson found the net at the 8:03 mark.
Madison came alive in the second period, collecting quick goals from Tyler Haskins at 1:06 and DJ Hart at 2:20 to take a 2-1 lead. The Capitols’ Jack Musa added a goal at the 10:30 mark, and Madison led 3-1 headed into the third period.
The Capitols all but finished off the Jacks with another three-goal flurry to open the final period. Just when the Lumberjacks were thinking comeback, Madison got goals from Reid Pebich at 4:08, Musa at 5:11 and Luke Mittelstadt at 7:29 to take a 6-1 lead.
Jake Braccini, Ben Strinden and Owen Mehlenbacher scored late goals for Muskegon, mixed in with tallies from Madison’s Pabich and Kyle Kukkonen.
Madison had a 40-32 advantage in shots on goal. Capitols goalie Simon Latkocozy got the win while Muskegon’s Chase Clark took the loss.
“Obviously it is not the ending we wanted but at the end of the day I was proud of how far we came and what we accomplished throughout the year,” Hamilton said. “When you get into the playoffs it requires someone to get hot and we had plenty of guys who did it. Unfortunately we came out one game short.”