By Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – One mark of a good player is when he bounces back from a tough game and has a positive impact in the next one.

Muskegon Lumberjacks Captain Anthony Del Gaizo did that last weekend.

Last Friday, the Lumberjacks led 4-3 in the third period, and were less than 10 minutes away from winning a second consecutive game for the first time this season.

But things did not go well for Muskegon in those waning minutes.

The Lumberjacks allowed two late third-period goals, which led to a 5-4 loss to the Black Hawks.

The game-winning goal, which was scored by Waterloo’s Matej Blumel with 2:15 remaining in regulation, came on a long Black Hawk power play.

The power play resulted from a five-minute cross checking penalty called on Del Gaizo in front of the Muskegon net with 3:24 left on the clock.

Anthony Del Gaizo

The penalty meant the Jacks had to compete one man short for the final minutes of a tied game.

“I saw a guy standing in front of the net with the puck and I had to take him out somehow,” Del Gaizo told “It didn’t help that he was a smaller guy.

“It happened fast, but I don’t think too many refs would have called a five-minute penalty. I was disappointed in what happened.”

Del Gaizo made up for the disappointing penalty the following night, scoring twice to lead the Lumberjacks to a 4-2 victory over Central Illinois.

“We played really good in both games last weekend, but on Saturday we just got off to a hot start and scored a goal right away,” Del Gaizo said. “It snowballed from there because we were able to keep the lead and get the win.

“I don’t really care who scores the goals. As long as we win games I’m happy.”

Muskegon has now won two of its last three games since going winless in five straight. The Jacks are looking to move up in the USHL’s Eastern Conference standings and get into position for a playoff spot.

The Lumberjacks are currently 6-10-2 on the season, good for 14 points and eighth place in the nine-team Eastern Conference.

The top six teams in each conference qualify for the postseason, and Muskegon is only three points behind Central Illinois in the race for the final spot with more than two-thirds of the season left to play.

The Jacks could also easily climb back into the thick of the conference race, because most of the teams are packed closely together in the standings.

Chicago and Youngstown are tied for first with 23 points, followed by Dubuque (19), Team USA and Green Bay (18), Central Illinois (17), Cedar Rapids (15), Muskegon (14) and Madison (13).

Muskegon will try to keep its mini hot streak alive with road games on Friday and Saturday against the Green Bay Gamblers. Faceoff for both games will be at 8:05 p.m. EST.

The Jacks will return home for a pair of games on Dec. 15 and 16 against Chicago.

Del Gaizo believes the Lumberjacks are steadily improving, but have a little way to go before playing to their full potential.

“No, we haven’t started peaking yet,” the captain said. “We are going to keep winning games, but it’s still really early in the season and we have a long way to go.”

Coach LaFontaine’s sick day

The Lumberjacks were missing an important face behind the bench on Friday night against Waterloo.

Head coach John LaFontaine was absent due to a case of strep throat, and had to watch the game via video feed from his office at L.C. Walker Arena.

Assistant coach Josh Nelson was in charge of the team, and Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck took a spot on the bench to help with coaching duties.

John LaFontaine

“It was tough,” LaFontaine said. “It was a hard week. It hit me on Monday and I came to work on Tuesday hoping to sweat it off.

“My throat was fine until Wednesday night when it started screaming. I wasn’t contiguous on Friday, but I couldn’t talk without coughing, so
it was good for Vanbiesbrouck to go behind the bench.

“I have never missed work before, even when I worked in a factory.”

The coach returned on Saturday and guided the Lumberjacks to their win against Central Illinois. He’s back full time for team practices this week.

“I feel much better,” LaFontaine said. “It’s amazing what antibiotics can do for you.”

LaFontaine has maintained a patient approach with his team all season, despite its slow start.

He’s happy with the recent winning trend, and believes the Jacks will have plenty of time to continue to improve and remain in the playoff hunt.

“It’s early December,” the coach said. “It’s the right time to come together, and we’re going to try to figure out how to keep it going.”

Players coming and going

The Lumberjacks have been having trouble scoring goals all season.

One reason has been the absence of forwards Mikael Hakkarainen and Michael Graham, two proven goal scorers who have been out of the lineup for weeks with head injuries.

Both are due back soon, which should give the Jacks an offensive shot in the arm.

Mikael Hakkarinen

Hakkarainen will return this weekend against the Gamblers after missing 12 games. He has played in only three games this season without registering a point.

Hakkarainen was acquired from Chicago last season and had nine goals and five assists in 2016-17.

Graham, who has only played in four games this season and has yet to produce a point, is still a few weeks away from returning to the team.

Last season he notched 10 goals and eight assists for Fargo before being acquired by the Lumberjacks in the offseason.

While the Jacks’ attack will be bolstered by the return of the two forwards, the team will be challenged by the temporary loss of three key players.

Defenseman Clayton Phillips, forward Jachym Kondelik and goaltender Adam Brizgala have been selected to play at the World Junior Championships, an international tournament in Nova Scotia.

Phillips has played in 13 games for Muskegon since being acquired from Fargo early in the season, and has four goals and five assists.

Kondelik has collected three goals and six assists in 17 games.

Brizgala, the Jacks’ No. 1 goalie, has played in 13 games, posting a 4-5-1 record with a 3.02 goals against average while stopping 298 shots.

The three players are expected to return after the USHL’s holiday break, which means they will miss the next five games.