By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Muskegon Lumberjacks fans have been breathing easier  – and having a pretty good time – for the past month or so.LSJ Logo incert

That’s because the Lumberjacks have dramatically turned their season around following an awful start.

They opened the season with a 2-6 record and looked like they had a ticket for the basement of the USHL’s Eastern Conference.

But they’ve been much better since then, going 8-2-1 in their last 11 games, including Saturday night’s exciting 9-5 victory over the Team USA Under-17 squad.

The Jacks are currently 10-8-1, good for 21 points and seventh place in the nine-team Eastern Conference. They are one point behind sixth-place Chicago and eight points behind first-place Cedar Rapids.

They will play Friday and Saturday night in Sioux Falls, then return home on Dec. 18 and 19 for games against Cedar Rapids.

But those four games will represent a new challenge for the Jacks, who will have to compete without two of their four leading scorers.

The biggest loss will be forward Rem Pitlick, who leads the team and the league in scoring with 14 goals and 14 assists for 28 points.

Pitlick was one of 20 United States Hockey League standouts named to the U.S. Junior Select Team that will compete in the 2015 World Junior “A” Challenge tournament Dec. 13-19 in Whitby, Ontario.

Also missing will be forward Matej Paulovic, who has already been out for three games since injuring a finger and having surgery.

He won’t be back until at least the Jan. 15 game against Team USA, which means he will miss at least the next nine games, according to Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier.

Paulovic is fourth on the team in scoring with five goals and seven assists for 12 points.

“This kind of stuff happens, but they are opportunities for other guys to step up,” Krygier said. “They think they should get more opportunities and don’t. Now they can prove it.”

Krygier said he doesn’t necessarily appreciate losing Pitlick to a midseason tournament, but he’s confident that the team can pick up the slack.

“I think the USHL season should go on without disruptions, but it’s part of the game at this level,” he said. “You roll with the punches and make the best of it. Some teams are losing three or four players (to the World Junior “A” Challenge), so it’s more disruptive for them.”

On a more positive note, forwards Max Humitz (concussion) and Jacob Coleman (finger) have recovered from their injuries and will be back in the lineup this weekend, Krygier said.

Pitlick, Hamilton honored by league

The USHL named Pitlick “Forward of the Week” for collecting two goals and two assists in a 6-5 overtime loss to Youngstown last Wednesday, and two goals and two assists against Team USA on Saturday.

Trevor Hamilton, the Lumberjacks’ captain, was named “Defenseman of the Week” for notching three assists against Youngstown and a goal and two assists against Team USA.

Lumberjacks welcome new players

The Lumberjacks completed a trade last week, acquiring defenseman Christian Hausinger from Lincoln in exchange for defenseman Alex Green.

Hausinger, a first-year USHL player, had two assists in 20 games for Lincoln. Last season he had seven goals and 24 assists for the Odessa Jackalopes of the North American Hockey League.

He debuted with Muskegon in last Saturday’s win over Team USA.

Meanwhile, the Jacks have decided to keep forward Anthony Del Gaizo, who played two games with the team last week and was only supposed to stay for 10 games.

Del Gaizo will now spend the rest of the season with the Lumberjacks, Krygier said.

“He’s a good player,” Krygier said. “He’s leaving the prep school he was attending in New Jersey and will finish the school year at Mona Shores.”

Odd starting times

The Lumberjacks have announced that two upcoming home games will have unusual starting times.

The Dec. 18 game against Cedar Rapids will start at 8:30 p.m., following a Reeths-Puffer high school hockey game. Doors for the Jacks’ game will open at 7:30 p.m.

The New Year’s Eve game against Chicago will start at 5:30 p.m.