The Muskegon Lumberjacks have a golden opportunity this weekend to put themselves right back in the thick of the hunt for a USHL Clark Cup playoff berth.
On the other hand, two losses would leave them with a a significant hill to climb to reach playoff territory, with the regular season starting to wind down.
The story is not complicated. The top six teams in the USHL’s Eastern and Western conferences make the playoffs.
The Lumberjacks are currently in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points in the standings. The Cedar Rapids Roughriders are in the sixth and final playoff spot with 47 points.
The Jacks will visit the Roughriders for a pair of games this weekend, on Friday and Saturday night.
Each victory is worth two points in the standings, so a weekend sweep would bring the Jacks within one point of Cedar Rapids with 16 games remaining in the regular season.
Two losses would put them nine points behind – four wins plus a point – and catching the Roughriders would be much more of a challenge.
The promising news is that the Jacks have beaten Cedar Rapids in three of four games this season, and the teams will meet for one more series after this weekend, on March 24-25 in Muskegon.
Lumberjacks coach Parker Burgess said the team has not talked too much about this weekend’s games, but the players understand the importance.
“I think the kids know – it’s not something we have to overemphasize,” Burgess said. “Everybody looks and the standings and knows what this weekend means. We’re trying not to overhype it and build stress going forward into the weekend.”
Some may say it’s too early to worry too much about making the playoffs, since there are currently 18 games left in the regular season.
But those 18 games include some big challenges for Muskegon. They will play two games against the elite and very hard to beat Team USA 18-Under squad, two apiece against Green Bay and Youngstown, who are currently tied for second place in the Eastern Conference, and two against the mighty Chicago Steel, the top team in the conference.
Assuming the Jacks do not win a majority of those eight games, the opportunities to pick up victories and points start to shrink.
The Lumberjacks have been playing at a .500 clip lately, winning one game and losing one game for the past five weekends. Last weekend they beat the Team USA 17-Under squad 7-4 on Friday while collecting two goals apiece from Ethan Whitcomb and Niko Rexine. On Saturday they lost in a rematch, 5-1.
If the Jacks did miss the playoffs, it would be the first time in five seasons, dating back to the 2015-16 season, and not counting 2019-20, when there were no playoffs due to COVID.
“When you on the outside looking in, there is a sense of urgency to make up some ground,” Burgess said about the playoff picture. “There are 18 games left and it starts with Friday night. If we can take care of business we will move forward.
“The points are important this weekend. We don’t want to dig ourselves too much of a hole (in the standings). It’s something we’re all very aware of.”
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