By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Early in the season, there weren’t many guys scoring many goals for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

As a result the Jacks were slow out of the gate, and spent the first few months of the season battling to stay out of last place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.

But several talented forwards have started to score in bunches, and the team’s fortunes have improved dramatically.

The latest evidence came last Tuesday, when forward Mikael Hakkarainen scored a natural hat trick (three consecutive goals, uninterrupted by any other goals)  in the first period, leading the Jacks to a 6-3 victory over the powerful Team USA Under-18 squad in a game in Plymouth, Michigan.

All three goals came on Muskegon power plays.

The victory was the fourth in a row for the surging Lumberjacks, who will return from their 10-day Christmas break for a home game Friday against the Team USA Under-17 squad at 7:15 p.m.

Muskegon’s Wyatt Bongiovanni (5) fights for the puck against Tri-City earlier this season. Photo/Jason Goorman

“It was fun to watch,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine about Hakkarainen’s single-period hat trick. “He took advantage of every pass. He’s always had a real good, accurate shot. It’s been great for him to get hot at the right time for us. Our power play certainly needed it.”

The low point of the season for the Jacks was Nov. 22, when they lost their fifth straight game, a 7-3 decision to the Youngstown Phantoms.

The Lumberjacks were 4-9-2 at that point, and were only averaging 2.8 goals per game through the first 15 games.

But since Nov. 25 the Lumberjacks are 6-2, and the improvement can be traced to increased offensive production. In the last eight games, Muskegon has averaged a much-improved 3.7 goals per game.

Leading the charge has been forward Wyatt Bongiovanni, who has produced a red-hot seven goals and five assists over the past month.

Forward Anthony Del Gaizo has scored six goals and three assists in that time period. Hakkarainen, who returned from a two-month concussion layoff on Dec. 8, has five goals and three assists in five games.

Matej Pekar controls the puck while Anthony Del Gaizo trails behind.

Matej Pekar has assisted on seven goals in the last eight games, while Emilio Pettersen and Marc Del Gaizo have five assists apiece.

Bongiovanni (12 goals, 10 assists, 22 points) is tied for fourth in the USHL scoring race. Anthony Del Gaizo (13-7-20) and Pekar (3-17-20) are tied for sixth.

The hot scorers have helped the Jacks improve their record to 10-11-2. They are tied for fifth place in the nine-team conference with 22 points. The standings are tight, and the Jacks are only six points (three victories) behind first-place Youngstown.

“I guess we’ve known they were going to do it all year,” LaFontaine said about having several key players get hot. “They all had different situations. Anthony Del Gaizo has been consistent all year, (Bongiovanni) started out slow and has been red hot for the last month. Hakkarainen just got in the lineup, but we expected this from him.

“It’s great to start to get this. But probably more than scoring goals, (the team’s turnaround) has been about playing more solid defense, which has helped to create more offensive opportunities.

Two defensemen lost

LaFontaine is correct about the improved defensive play.

Over the first 15 games on the season, Muskegon’s opponents were averaging 3.6 goals per game. That included three games when opponents scored seven goals, and two more when they scored five.

Over the last eight games the Jacks’ opponents have only averaged 2.75 goals per game.

Clayton Phillips

But just when the defense was starting to click, the Lumberjacks received some bad personnel news.

Top four defensemen Clayton Phillips (5 goals, 7 assists) and Collin Murphy (1 goal, 1 assist) have both left the team to start their college hockey careers a bit early.

Phillips will play for the University of Minnesota while Murphy will play for Northeastern University. Both were scheduled to start their college careers next fall, but their teams were ready for them to enroll and start playing right away.

“It was out of the blue – we didn’t see it coming at all,” Lafontaine said. “Both are going to be hard to replace. But that’s what you have depth for. We’ve had nine defensemen for most of the season, and this gets the number down to seven. We feel we have guys ready to step up.”

Kondelik injured

The Jacks also received worrisome news about standout forward Jachym Kondelik, (3 goals, 6 assists), who recently missed several games while playing for the Czech Republic in the World Junior “A” Challenge in Nova Scotia.

Jachym Kondelik

When that tournament ended, Kondelik was summoned to play an exhibition game with a Czech national team at the World Junior Championships in Buffalo. He suffered an upper body injury during that contest, and is currently back home in the Czech Republic getting treatment.

It’s impossible to say at the moment when Kondelik might return to the Lumberjacks, according to LaFontaine.

“We’re hoping he will be healthy enough to return,” the coach said. “We know he won’t be back on time for Friday’s game. We’re waiting to hear what the doctors say. My gut feeling is that he’s going to be back at some point.”

Two good goalies

Adam Brizgala, who started the season as the Lumberjacks’ starting goalie, is back and ready to go following his stint in the World Junior “A” Challenge in Nova Scotia.

Keegan Karki makes the save for Muskegon.

Brizgala played well in the tournament, making 28 saves to lead the Czech Republic to a 4-2 victory over Russia in the bronze medal game.

But he may not be seeing a lot of ice time for the Lumberjacks right away.

That’s because Keegan Karki, who was acquired by the Lumberjacks early in the season to be the backup goalie, has been hot in Brizgala’s absence.

Karki has appeared in 12 games while posting a 6-5 record with a 3.08 goals against average.

LaFontaine said there is no designated starting goalie at the moment. He said he will decide who will start each game, based on performance.

“Right now it’s hard not to let the hot hand keep going, and (Karki) has been playing well,” the coach said. “We know Briz also played well in Nova Scotia. It’s nice to have two good guys.”