Fresh off a first-round sweep of the Youngstown Phantoms, the Fighting Saints find themselves back on the road against the top-seeded Muskegon Lumberjacks as they kick off the Eastern Conference Semifinals this weekend. Dubuque will battle Muskegon in a best of five series, with the winner heading to the Conference Finals. Muskegon has the most rested squad in the USHL, with most of their starters playing their last game nearly two weeks ago. The Fighting Saints are coming in battle tested and while they might be wearier, they could be more game ready. Get ready for the Semifinal round with your full series preview right below.
How They Got Here:
The Muskegon Lumberjacks dominated the first half of the season a built their insurmountable lead by December. Muskegon was 23-9-1 by the time the calendar hit January. Since then, the Lumberjacks have gone 18-12-2-1. While their record recently hasn’t been as dominant, they still have proven to be one of the best teams in the league. Muskegon has not played a game since April 13th, when they lost 8-1 to Chicago. Muskegon hasn’t played a full game with their normal starting lineup since April 6th in Green Bay.
Dubuque on the other hand, has played their full complement of players as recently as Tuesday night. That was when they ended the series against Youngstown, downing the Phantoms in two games. Dubuque lost their last two games of the regular season but showed no signs of that or a hectic travel schedule as they bounced the three-seeded Phantoms in the first round. Dubuque was clutch in their series, scoring all six of their goals after the first two periods. The Fighting Saints were the only lower seed to advance to the Semifinals.
On paper, this looks like a huge mismatch in favor of Muskegon. When you dive deeper in to the numbers, it is anything but that. Despite the discrepancy in points (Muskegon finished the regular season with 86 to Dubuque’s 64) the two teams were extremely even in their regular season matchups. Both teams won twice, with Dubuque winning by matching 3-2 scores and Muskegon winning 5-4 and 4-3. Each team won once on home ice and once on the road. Each team won in regulation and each team won once in overtime. Both teams received 35-plus save efforts from their goalies (Matthew Thiessen on December 8th and Brandon Bussi on December 7th). Dubuque was 3-15 on the power play against Muskegon in the season series, while the Lumberjacks managed just one power play goal in 14 attempts against Dubuque. During the regular season, Muskegon was top three in goals allowed per game and sixth in goals scored. Dubuque was 10th in goals allowed and 9th in goals scored. Again, if you’re playing the numbers game, Muskegon has a heavy advantage overall, but head to head the teams were dead even. Special teams wise, Dubuque was 5th in the regular season on the power play. They had one power play goal in eight attempts in the first round. On the penalty kill, despite finishing last in the regular season, Dubuque is first in the postseason. They were a perfect eight for eight in round one. Muskegon was a solid PK team in the regular season at 84.3% they were third best in the league. On the PP, despite a unit loaded with talent, Muskegon was 13th best in the USHL at 17.3%. One last stat to note, Muskegon started every game off between the two teams in front, Dubuque had to claw from behind twice in their first round series and they had to do so in both of their wins against the Lumberjacks this season as well.
The Key Players:
If you read a game preview this season, Matias Maccelli’s name will pop up. After a quiet first game against Youngstown, Maccelli factored in to all three goals on Tuesday. Maccelli had three assists and is first on the team in playoff scoring after a 72-point regular season. Maccelli was a difference maker on Tuesday and can be one of the best players in the league when at the top of his game. Dubuque also received massive contributions from Matthew Thiessen in both games. After round one, Thiessen was second in goals against and save percentage with a 1.44 goals against and a .939 save percentage. Thiessen finished the season strong for Dubuque, with a .940 save percentage in his last three games. For Dubuque, the first round showed that they don’t need the biggest performances from their top offensive players to have success. Kaelan Taylor and Luke Robinson were both plus-2 on the defensive end as a pairing. Taylor notched an assist in game one and the two were a plus-1 in both games.
For Muskegon, it is hard to look past the offensive weapons they have at the top, but the Lumberjacks are a very balanced team. The top offensive producer for Muskegon is Egor Afanasyev, who had 62 points in the regular season. Afanasyev is in the top-30 on the NHL’s Central Scouting list and has the prototypical build of a power forward. He is a power play threat, with 19 points and he leads the team in big moments too as he amassed six game winning goals. Alex Yakovenko was just as good as Afanasyev, he just did his damage from a little further back. The blue liner was the second highest scoring defenseman in the league this season behind Ronnie Attard. Yakovenko set Lumberjack’s records in goals and points for a defenseman in a single season with 19 goals and 33 points. Finally, for Muskegon, the workhorse between the pipes, Brandon Bussi, can help them steal a game or two. Bussi was second in the USHL in games played during the regular season. He played a bunch, but was able to finish first in wins, fourth in goals against and third in save percentage. The netminder is as good as anyone in the USHL when it comes to stopping the puck.
One Big Thing:
For the Saints, the biggest key is to simply keep the momentum going. In the first round they established that they can play playoff style hockey and win low scoring games. They scored gritty goals that were absent for large parts of the regular season. In addition, they seem to have found something in Matthew Thiessen over the past few weeks. Though you always make adjustments based off who you are playing, the Saints shouldn’t have to make many. For Dubuque it is about playing the style that got them to this point and playing it effectively.
For Muskegon, the biggest key is a quick start for various reasons. The first reason is that the Lumberjacks will have home ice advantage. The old saying is that “a series doesn’t start until a team loses on home ice.” If Muskegon can hold serve that gives them a massive advantage, needing to win just one of the final three. Second, Muskegon is the top seed, meaning all the pressure is on them. In most predictions, Dubuque wasn’t supposed to get past Youngstown, now they are likely the underdog against Muskegon as well. If the Lumberjacks lose an early game, more doubt has a chance to seep in. The final reason a quick start is paramount is because of how long Muskegon hasn’t played a game with their full lineup in two weeks. Though they will be more rested than Dubuque, something can be said for playing meaningful games more recently. Muskegon hasn’t had to play many meaningful games since the turn of the calendar. A fast start to shake off the rust will be key.
Confidence is key and numbers don’t matter much at this time of the year. That’s not an exaggeration or fallacy, it is simply a fact of playoff hockey. Use the Columbus Blue Jackets over Tampa Bay just recently, the numbers could have never concocted that upset, but it happened. On paper, advantage Muskegon. Looking at the regular season series, advantage even. In the postseason, Dubuque is tested, and Muskegon is not. In essence, that is a long-winded way of saying this series doesn’t seem as lopsided as regular season standings and stats suggest. Expect a few more one goal games between these two opponents, just like in the regular season.