By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Sometimes it just takes a little time, and the right opportunity, for a talented young athlete to hit his stride.

That’s even true for really big guys with all sorts of natural potential, like Muskegon Lumberjacks goalie Keegan Karki, who will join his teammates for a pair of home games this weekend against Green Bay..

Karki, 17, a native of Sartell, Minnesota, has the ideal frame for a goalie at 6’4” and about 220 pounds.

But having the right size doesn’t guarantee success, particularly in the highly-competitive United States Hockey League. Hundreds of talented young players are battling to gain notice, earn college scholarships and the attention of pro scouts, so you have to play well to stand out.

Karki was selected to play for the USA national development team in 2016, and spent the 2016-17 season with the Plymouth, Michigan-based Team USA Under-17 squad in the USHL.

He had a rough time in his first year of junior hockey, posting a 1-14-1 record with an inflated 4.46 goals against average.

That was not the kind of start that Karki had in mind for his junior hockey career.

Keegan Karki. Photo/Jason Goorman

“It definitely was a tough transition,” said Karki, who played other positions as a youngster, then switched to goalie when he was 11 or 12. “Being 15 and leaving the house and everything behind, it took some getting used to. Just being that young and playing in the USHL. On the development side it was really good, but on the hockey side it was kind of rough. You’re playing against bigger, older people, at a faster pace.”

Karki went to training camp this season with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, but did not make the team. After his tough season in 2016-17, that was not a great way to start 2017-18.

Karki admits it was disappointing to be cut by Omaha, but instead of becoming depressed and giving up, he said the letdown made him more determined to hook on with another team and have a good season.

“It just kind of fed my fire to keep battling,” Karki said. “It worked out for the best.”

Karki went home for a few weeks, considered a few different options, and came to Muskegon in late October, when the Lumberjacks were shopping for a new backup goaltender.

Matt Vernon, who started the season as the backup to second-year Jacks goalie Adam Brizgala, was sent back to a lower level of junior hockey to gain more experience.

Keegan Karki frustrates a Chicago player after making a save in a recent game.

Karki got the chance to see some ice time in November when the Lumberjacks were struggling. Then he got to play every game when Brizgala left the team for several weeks to play for the Czech Republic in the World Junior A Challenge tournament in Canada.

Karki took full advantage of the opportunity.

Through 15 games, Karki has posted 9-6-0 record with a very low 2.85 goals against average. He was in goal every game during the Lumberjacks’ recent seven-game winning streak, which set a franchise record for consecutive victories.

The highlight of Karki’s season so far was a 3-0 shutout victory at home on Dec. 29 against the Team USA Under-17 squad, his former team. Karki stopped 18 shots to collect the first shutout of his USHL career, and the Lumberjacks’ second shutout of the season.

“It was a blast, a great feeling,” Karki said about the shutout. “Ask anyone who has played against their old team. It’s a different game for you, and it feels good to win. For a goalie, getting a shutout is the best you can do. Everyone played really well in that game.”

Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine said Karki’s performance has been a big plus for the Jacks.

“He seems to get better every month, maybe every week,” LaFontaine said. “His confidence is up. He believes he can hold us in games, and bail us out when we’re in trouble. That’s huge.”

Adam Brizgala is back with the Jacks, and gives them two quality options in goal.

LaFontaine said Karki had some obvious confidence issues when he came to the team, but has sharpened his skills and regained a lot of confidence by working with Lumberjacks goalie coach Dave DeSander.

“He’s come so much farther than we anticipated,” the coach said. “It was a great move to acquire him and bring him in. He had a really rough year last year and came in with little or no confidence. He definitely needed some refinement in his technique. Dave has done a great job of fine-tuning his game.”

Karki also gives DeSander a lot of credit.

“My goalie coach has really helped me with different stuff, like using my size and having to move less, cutting down the angles with my hands, playing the puck, stuff like that,” Karki said.

Karki said one big key to his turnaround this season has been a new mental approach.

Instead of focusing too hard during games, he says he’s learned to relax and have some fun. When he does that, he says he plays a lot better.

“I’m playing more aggressively now,” Karki said. “I find that when I’m having fun it plays into my game and I feel more confidence. Instead of being super-focused, I’m more relaxed and calm. I figure that works for me.”

Suddenly Karki is no longer designated as the Lumberjacks’ backup goalie.

The Lumberjacks have been celebrating a lot lately while winning 9 of 12 games.

Adam Brizgala had a great performance at the World Junior A Challenge, and is back with the Lumberjacks. But LaFointaine said Karki has played so well that the starting goalie will be the guy who is getting it done at any given time, and at the moment that guy is Karki.

“It’s a good problem to have,” LaFontaine said about having two strong goalies. “Right now Karki has taken the reigns, so it’s his to keep, but it’s a long season. Obviously Briz would like to get back in there, and he’s going to keep working hard to do it.”

While every goalie appreciates the security of being his  team’s every day starter, Karki said there are advantages to competing for playing time.

“Everyone has bad practices and games,” Karki said. “In the end, it’s about proving you can play and being consistent. It’s a good thing to have to keep battling and working for things. When I came to the league I wanted to earn everything, and I think I’ve been doing that.”

Karki’s recent play has been a big factor behind the Lumberjacks’ success in November and December. After spending the first two months of the season in or near last place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, the Jacks have won 9 of their last 12 games.

The highlight of their hot streak was the seven-game winning streak between Dec. 8 and Jan. 5.

Karki was in goal for the record-setting seventh straight victory last Friday in Dubuque, when the Jacks pulled out a 3-2 win.

Karki said the entire team has gained a lot of confidence over the past few months, just like he has.

“I think there’s just a lot of good camaraderie between the players, and guys are starting to feel their roles,” he said. “A bunch of guys started stepping up, and other guys saw that and wanted to step up. It’s been really good.”

Karki said there’s no limit to how far the Lumberjacks can go this season.

“I think we can go very far,” he said. “That winning streak was no fluke. Once you get a group going, and they learn how to keep winning, there’s no telling how far you can go. I would say easily the playoffs, plus.”