MUSKEGON – Prior to last weekend, the first-place Chicago Steel completely owned the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

The Jacks went into a matchup with the Steel on Saturday night with a frustrating 0-5 record against their Windy City rivals. They had several very close losses to the Steel, including a disappointing 4-3 defeat on Friday night in the first game of the weekend series in Chicago.

The frustration finally boiled over for the Lumberjacks, and they finally did something about it.

Saturday’s game was tied 4-4 after two periods, then the Jacks exploded for four goals in the third to take an exciting 8-5 win and get the Chicago monkey off their backs.

Muskegon’s Jake Richard, who led the way to the big win on Saturday with a hat trick. Photo/Tonya Pardon

Forward Jake Richard led the way with a three-goal hat trick, including two goals in the crucial third period. David Hymovitch scored twice while Sacha Boisvert, Nathan McBrayer and Owen Mehlenbacher all scored once.

Tyler Dunbar had three assists while Mehlehbacher had two.

“In the locker room (after the second period), we just came together, looked around the room and said we were going to win this game,” said Richard, who registered his first hat trick of the season and now has 16 goals and 12 assists. “Everyone believed, everyone had confidence. We knew what we had to do and what we could do.

“After playing them so many times and not getting a win against them, that was a special one, for sure.”

Lumberjacks captain Owen Mehlenbacher, who had a goal and two assists on Saturday. Photo-Tonya Pardon.

Mehlehbacher, the Lumberjacks’ captain, also said there was a lot of energy and determination in the locker room after the second period on Saturday.

“Coach (Parker Burgess) had a talk with us and said we’re going to go out and win – he promised us that we were going to win that game,” Mehlehbacher said. “Then we went out and stuck it to them, right off the bat. They didn’t know what to do and we just finished them off.

“It was a good weekend, a good step forward for the team.”

The victory did not come easy.

First the Lumberjacks had to put Friday’s 4-3 loss behind them. That was not so easy to do, because they led 2-0 early in the second period before the game got away from them.

On Saturday the Jacks once again led 2-0 following first-period goals by Hymovitch and Richard. Then Chicago stole the momentum in the second period by outscoring the Jacks 4-2, and it looked like a familiar script playing out all over again.

David Hymovitch, who had two goals on Saturday. Photo/Jeremy Clark

But Muskegon took the momentum right back in the third. Richard scored at the 2:23 mark and Boisvert found the net at 10:02, putting the Jacks up 6-4. Chicago scored at the 14:43 mark, then the Jacks sealed things up with two quick goals by Richard and Hymovitch at 16:30 and 16:51, respectively. The last goal was an empty-netter.

“I think it was just a product of the hard work the guys have put in since Christmas break,” Coach Burgess said. “Last week we had a very purposeful week of practice, and it translated into a really good game on Friday. Then we took that loss on Friday, had very productive meetings and talks on Saturday, and the players took ownership of the team.

“There was a tangible confidence and excitement among the players. Most of all, it was like a belief.”

The Jacks think the victory represents more than just a single win over a team they have struggled with all year. They believe it helped them overcome a mental barrier that kept them from being the team they can be.

After a strong start to the season, the Lumberjacks had been struggling for the past month, posting a 2-6 record between Dec. 9 and last Friday.

The Lumberjacks’ Tyler Dunbar, who had three assists on Saturday. Photo/Tonya Pardon.

A number of factors played into that slump, including a sudden coaching change, the loss of four key players to an international tournament for five games, and a long Christmas break that interrupted their daily workout schedule.

Now the Jacks are once again over the .500 mark at 14-13-2 with 30 points in the standings. They are in sixth place (the final playoff spot) in the Eastern Conference, but they are also just four points – two victories – behind the second-place Green Bay Gamblers in the very tight conference race.

Chicago remains in first place, far ahead of the pack with 42 points.

With their newfound confidence following the victory in Chicago, the Jacks are hoping to trend upward in the standings, starting with home games on Friday and Saturday night against the Youngstown Phantoms.

Lumberjacks head coach Parker Burgess. Photo/Tonya Pardon

“We have to carry that momentum into our next few games,” Richard said. “We need to keep that energy and confidence going forward. If we take it the right way, we could use it as a big swing for the team and the season.”

Mehlenbacher noted that something similar happened last season, when the Jacks got off to slow start, then got a big win in Chicago that propelled them on to a great season.

“Finally taking one from them was definitely big,” the captain said. “We have a good team here. We’re better than anyone thinks we are.”

While it was only one game and one win, Burgess understands how one confidence-building victory over an elite rival can springboard a team to a whole new level of play.

“Going into the third period (on Saturday), we knew that was a point that could really change the season,” Burgess said. “That was kind of the message after the second period, then in the third period we dominated and took off. That was encouraging and positive to see.”