MUSKEGON – If the Muskegon Lumberjacks keep playing special teams the way they did last weekend, they will be a very special team indeed.
The Jacks came into the weekend ranked near the bottom of the USHL’s Eastern Conference in both power play goals and penalty kill – but you would have never known it against the Madison Capitols.
On Friday the Lumberjacks scored three power play goals – including two within the first six minutes of the game – en route to a fun 8-3 victory.
On Saturday the Jacks committed a lot of penalties, but the PK unit rose to the challenge, keeping Madison scoreless on an amazing eight power plays in an exciting 3-2 victory.
“That’s a really good goalie and a lot of luck!” said Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton about Saturday’s penalty kill performance. “Any time you’re shorthanded for that much time, the other team is going to get some pucks on the net. I thought we did a fantastic job of getting in their lanes and getting pucks out of our zone, and (goalie Conor Callaghan) was absolutely fantastic.”
Hamilton noted that his team also had two shorthanded goals over the weekend, and said the Jacks’ special teams are trending in the right direction.
“Right now we really like the personnel we have in both categories (power play and penalty kill),” he said. “We’ve got the right guys in the right positions.”
Hamilton said the penalty kill unit got some crucial help from new defenseman Jack Sparkes, who was acquired last week from the Lincoln Stars in exchange for future considerations.
Sparkes appears to be a very good pickup for the Jacks. The 6-foot-8, 234-pound defenseman is a first-year USHL player who was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the sixth round of last summer’s National Hockey League draft.
The Lumberjacks were looking for a traditional defensive defenseman to complement an already strong blue line corps. The Jacks have a number of defensemen who contribute significantly to the offensive attac, and wanted someone who’s main focus is killing the opposing attack.
“He’s a stay-at-home defenseman and he loves to kill penalties,” Hamilton said. “He checks all the boxes in terms of what we were looking for to complete our blue line, and he adds a little toughness.
“Looking at film, we knew we were getting a stay-home defenseman, but we found out there’s more. He skates well, adds a very physical presence, has a very good first pass and can shoot the puck. We’re excited.”
Jacks now have three strong goalies on roster
The Jacks’ goalie situation, which was a concern at the start of the season, has suddenly become a very strong suit for the team.
Hamilton was concerned about the position a few months ago. Raythan Robbins, the goalie they drafted to be their starter, did not come to training camp because his services were needed this fall at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
That left the Jacks with Callaghan and Noah Rupprecht, two inexperienced and largely unknown goalies.
But Callaghan has been playing great, and Rupprecht has also performed very well when he’s had a chance to play.
With two wins last weekend, Callaghan improved his record to 8-3 on the season with a very nice 3.07 goals against average.
His currently ranks 16th in the USHL in GAA, but is only one of eight goalies in the top 20 who have faced at last 300 shots this season. He has allowed only 36 goals on 323 shots.
Callaghan did more than just stop Madison from scoring on its eight power plays on Saturday. He also stopped a shot on a Madison breakaway in the third period, keeping the game tied, and then the Jacks scored the game-winner shortly after on a goal by captain Owen Mehlenbacher.
A week earlier, in an overtime shootout win in Dubuque, he stopped a penalty shot in the regular five-minute overtime period that could have ended the game, then stopped all three 1-on-1 shots he faced in the shootout.
“He’s a heck of a goalie,” Hamilton said about Callaghan. “He has lots of technique and work ethic. He’s just a competitor. He hates to lose a shot, a game or a drill in practice. He’s a little bit of a throwback in terms of his competitive nature. He pushes himself and loves to compete.”
Now, to top it all off, Robbins has finally reported to the Lumberjacks and is expected to be in uniform this weekend when they visit Chicago for Friday and Saturday games and Dubuque on Sunday.
Robbins did not see game action at Nebraska-Omaha but practiced with the team. The college team now has all of its regular goalies in place and Robbins has completed his fall semester classes, so he has come to Muskegon to gets some experience before returning to the NCAA ranks next season.
The 20-year-old native of Anchorage, Alaska displayed his skills last year with the Anchorage Wolverines of the North American Hockey League. He posted a shining 21-6-7 regular season record with a great 2.27 goals against average, then had an 8-2 record with an even better 1.89 GAA in the playoffs.
The Lumberjacks now have the very good problem of trying to find playing time for three strong goalies, and will eventually have to decide whether to carry all three on the roster all season,
“He’s really, really skilled,” Hamilton said about Robbins. “He’s not overly big, but like Callaghan he has a lot of compete in him.
“Any time you can add a goalie of his caliber you’re excited to get him to town. I think he’s going to push the bar. When guys are challenged they find another level to rise up to. He’s been practicing but not playing games. We will have (goalie coach (Dave DeSander) do a quick evaluation, see where he’s at, and then we will see where we can get him in.”