By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – Keeghan Howdeshell was just starting to find his game a few months ago, when a high left ankle sprain kept him out of the lineup for 10 games.

But he’s healthy again and suddenly making a lot of noise for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

The veteran forward scored two goals on Saturday – including a game-clinching empty-netter in the final seconds – to lead the Jacks to a thrilling 3-1 victory over the first-place Chicago Steel in front of 2,627 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.

The victory wrapped up a huge weekend for Howdeshell and the Lumberjacks. He also had two goals on Friday – including another empty-netter at the end of the game – leading Muskegon to a 6-3 win over Youngstown.

Howdeshell came into the weekend with only two goals, so he has more than doubled his total in just two nights, with a lot of games to go.

“It was great to see him play with a spark,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine. “High ankle sprain injuries are among the worst in hockey. He was out for about a month, and when he came back he was not 100 percent, but I think he is getting back up there.

Muskegon goalie Adam Brizgal gets taken out by Marc Johnstone on a hard play at the net. Photo/Marc Hoeksema

“Before his injury he was starting to play his best. He was making things happen with consistency.”

Howdeshell said the injury is still nagging, but he feels good enough to play at full strength.

“I still have some discomfort in my ankle when I tweak it a bit,” Howdeshell said. “It’s something I will need to battle with for the rest of the season. But we have great trainers who give great therapy for it.”

Howdeshell said the big win was a total team effort.

“We knew what we had to do and we just got it done,” he said.

Saturday’s win provided a measure of revenge for the Lumberjacks, who fell to the Steel 5-1 in December, the only other time the teams have met this season.

Muskegon improved to 18-11-2 on the season, good for 38 points and third place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. They started the day in fifth place, but leapfrogged Youngstown and Green Bay in the standings.

The Jacks are eight points behind Chicago and two points behind second-place Dubuque. The top four teams in the conference qualify for the playoffs.

Muskegon forward Collin Adams passes the puck in front of No. 12 Walker Duehr.

The Lumberjacks received a brilliant goaltending performance from Adam Brizgala, who stopped 39 of 40 shots to collect his seventh victory of the season.

Brizgala opened the season as the team’s starting goalie, struggled in his first few games, and has been sharing time with fellow goaltender Keith Petruzzelli since then.

Petruzzelli also turned in a very strong performance in Friday’s victory, suggesting that the Jacks’ goaltending situation may be stabilizing as the second half of the season unfolds.

“He looked confident,” said LaFontaine about Brizgala. “He made two breakaway saves and he made it look easy. Good for him. Now he’s being rewarded for his confidence.”

The game was hard-hitting and tempers flared, with skirmishes breaking out between the two teams at regular intervals throughout the game.

Muskegon rang up 38 penalty minutes while Chicago had 14.

The Jacks’ penalty killing unit did its job throughout the game, killing all eight Chicago power plays. It was particularly impressive in two crucial situations, stopping Chicago from scoring with a two-man advantage for 31 seconds in the second period and 35 seconds in the third.

“We brought a lot of emotion tonight, and it was neat to see how they were battling and communicating together,” LaFontaine said about the players.

The first period ended in a scoreless tie, with Chicago outshooting the Lumberjacks by a 12-10 margin.

Muskegon opened the scoring at the 5:12 mark of the second period on a goal from Howdeshell. Casey Gilling and Zach Berzolla each picked up assists.

The Lumberjacks increased their lead to 2-0 on a power play goal from Jachym Kondelik 1:21 into the third period. Mikael Hakkarainen and Koby Bender assisted.

The Steel cut their deficit to 2-1 on a goal from Tyler Gratton at the 15:51 mark of the third period.

Chicago pulled its goalie in the final minute for an extra attacker, in an attempt to tie the game. Howdeshell settled the issue when he chased down a long shot from a teammate that barely missed the empty Steel goal, and stuffed it in from a few feet away with five seconds remaining.

Marcus Russell and Jack McNeely assisted on the final goal.