By Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – The month of January has been a very good one for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

After closing out 2016 with a 3-1 home victory over Team USA on December 30, the Lumberjacks have posted a 6-1 record during January, outscoring their opponents by a 28-14 margin and putting themselves within shooting distance of first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.

Their latest success came last weekend, when they swept the Green Bay Gamblers in a pair of home games, 7-4 on Friday and 1-0 in a sudden-death shootout thriller on Saturday.

The Jacks were 15-11-2 prior to their Dec. 30 victory. They enter this weekend with a far more impressive 22-12-2 mark.

Muskegon will close out the successful month with two games against the Dubuque Fighting Saints at L.C. Walker Arena on Friday and Saturday night. Both contests will start at 7:15 p.m.

The Lumberjacks will have a chance to leapfrog Dubuque in the standings. The Fighting Saints are in second place in the Eastern conference, only two points ahead of third-place Muskegon.

The Jacks are only four points behind first-place Chicago in the conference, and have significantly strengthened their chances of making the Clark Cup playoffs.

The Jacks entered 2017 in fourth place in the conference, only two points ahead of fifth-place Green Bay. The top four teams in each conference make the playoffs.

Now they have a much more comfortable eight-point lead over fifth-place Green Bay, and a two-point lead over fourth-place Youngstown.

Their February schedule should work in their favor. After a pair of road games Feb. 3-4 in Green Bay, they will be home on Friday and Saturday for three straight weekends. Eight of their next 11 games will be at L.C. Walker Arena.

According to Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine, the turning point for the team came after a much-needed one-week break over the Christmas holiday.

“The Christmas break couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” LaFontaine said. “There was a rough stretch for us on the road in November and December. We had so many road trips, and so many guys out for various reasons. We weathered the storm and won some games we probably shouldn’t have.

“We were scratching and clawing and not playing our game, and some fatigue showed as well. I think the rest did the players some good.”

Secondary scoring a big factor

One big difference for the Jacks in January has been sorely-needed secondary scoring.

For the first three months of the season, three players – Collin Adams, Andre Svechnikov and Bo Hanson – produced nearly one-third of the team’s scoring, while other players struggled to find the net.

But several other Jacks have stepped up their scoring in recent weeks, taking the pressure off the three leaders and making the Jacks a more dangerous team.

Marc Del Gaizo has posted eight points in the last eight games, with two goals and six assists, while Keeghan Howdeshell has seven points on five goals and two assists.

Matt Steeves has chipped in with two goals (both on Friday night) and three assists and Jachym Kondelik has scored three goals during the streak.

That doesn’t mean the big three have slowed down. Adams leads the team in scoring over the past eight games with 10 points (four goals, six assists), Svechnikov has seven points (five goals and two assists) and Hanson has six points (one goal, five assists).

Muskegon’s special teams have improved during the past month, stopping opponents from scoring in 39 of 45 shorthanded situations, and scoring eight power-play goals in 29 opportunities.

Muskegon picks up veteran defensemen

The Lumberjacks have acquired veteran defensemen Ty Farmer and a future draft pick from the Youngstown Phantoms, in exchange for two draft picks.

Farmer, who is from O’Fallon, Missouri, has scored two goals and 13 assists in 87 career USHL games over three seasons. He is committed to play hockey collegiately at Michigan State University.

“We’re excited to bring in a veteran defenseman that we believe can help us right away,” said Lumberjacks assistant coach Todd Robinson. “Ty is a high-character player who will fit in with our organization.”

Adams, Petruzzelli earn league honors

Adams was named the USHL co-forward of the week, along with Madison’s Kamil Sadlocha. Keith Petruzzelli earned co-goaltender of the week honors, along with Madison’s Dryden McKay.

Adams scored a goal, picked up two assists and scored a shootout goal for Muskegon over the weekend. Petruzzelli posted his second shutout of the season on Saturday, stopping all 20 shots he faced during regulation and overtime against Green Bay, then another nine shots during the 10-round shootout.