By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks desperately needed someone to step up and start scoring some goals, and Wyatt Bongiovanni answered the call on Wednesday.

The veteran forward, who came to the Lumberjacks in a trade with the Tri-City Storm in the offseason, produced the Jacks’ first hat trick of the season in an exciting 3-0 victory over the Central Illinois Flying Aces.

Bongiovanni’s heroics came before a crowd of 3,098 fans, including several thousand local school kids, who gathered for the Lumberjacks’ annual morning game at L.C. Walker Arena.

The Jacks improved to 4-5-1 on the season. They will return to action with a home game on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. against the Youngstown Phantoms. The two teams will also play on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. in Muskegon.

Bongiovanni’s goals were his second, third and fourth of the season. Forward Emilio Pettersen also had a big game, assisting on all three goals.

Muskegon’s Wyatt Dongiovanni gets ready for the face off. Photo/Marc Hoeksema

“It was a total team effort,” Bongiovanni said. “I was lucky enough to get the goals. They were needed. Now we’ve got to keep them coming.”

Bongiovanni’s hat trick was not the only first of the season for the Lumberjacks. Goalie Adam Brizgala turned away 21 Central Illinois shots to collect the team’s first shutout of the 2017-18 campaign.

Brizgala had a tense moment in the second period when he wandered out of the goal crease to clear the puck, but inadvertently fed it to a Central Illinois player who got past him and broke in toward an empty net.

But several Lumberjacks reacted quickly and packed the goal crease, preventing the Flying Aces from ruining the shutout.

Dante Sheriff moves the puck up ice for the Lumberjacks. Photo/Marc Hoeksema

“Good for him – he needed that,” Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine said about Brizgala’s performance. “He’s been consistent and strong all season.”

The Lumberjacks came into the game tied for last in the United States Hockey League in goal scoring, and their struggles persisted for most of the contest.

They took a 1-0 lead just three minutes into the game when Bongiovanni hit paydirt with a shot from the right faceoff circle. Pettersen assisted on the goal.

The second period was scoreless, and the score remained 1-0 through nearly half of the third.

The Jacks had a lot of scoring chances, due to a constant parade of Flying Aces who were sent to the penalty box throughout the game. Central Illinois was whistled for 13 penalties for 37 minutes.

Muskegon failed to score on the first six of its eight power play opportunities. But Bongiovanni finally cashed in when he took a pass from Blake Evennou in front of the Central Illinois goal and chipped the puck home to give the Lumberjacks a 2-0 lead at 8:35 of the third period.

Muskegon area kids dance after a Lumberjacks goal. The 10:30 a.m. start game was a special day for area students. Photo/Marc Hoeksema

Evennou and Pettersen had assists on the goal.

Bongiovanni finished the scoring with another power play goal at 11:08 of the third period, with assists from Pettersen and Marc Del Gaizo.

The Lumberjacks outshot Central Illinois 36-21, including 16-7 in the decisive third period.

“We haven’t had three goals in a game in awhile,” LaFontaine said. “We had 36 shots, so we should get three goals. That’s been our focus, getting pucks better to the net, driving the net, stopping at the net and screening the goalie. The guys did a good job of that today.”