By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – There were great expectations for Emilio Pettersen when he came to the Muskegon Lumberjacks last summer.

After putting up big offensive numbers in youth hockey, Pettersen was tendered by the Omaha Lancers in the summer of 2016. That means the Lancers thought so much of his talent that they gave up a first-round draft pick to sign him.

He proved he was worth it in 2016-17, collecting 10 goals and 17 assists for Omaha as a 16-year-old rookie.

So when the Lumberjacks acquired him in an offseason trade, they figured they were getting a guy who would score a lot of goals this winter.

“Emilio is a world-class player,” Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck was quoted as saying in a team press release after the trade. “He is a versatile player who can make a difference at both center and wing. We are excited to add him to our team.”

But Pettersen did not stand out over the first two months of the season. He struggled to find the net, and some fans were probably wondering what all the hype was about.

They are finding out now.

Lumberjacks center Emilio Pettersen

Pettersen has been more than a little hot lately, piling up five goals and three assists in the last five games.

His last two games were particularly productive. He had a goal in the Lumberjacks’ 3-0 home victory over Team USA last Friday, then delivered two goals in Sunday’s 6-3 victory over the Chicago Steel.

Pettersen now has 7 goals and 11 assists on the season.

“It obviously feels really good to start producing more,” said Pettersen, 17, a native of Manglerud, Norway. “It starts with being more comfortable around the team and with the lines and everything, and building some chemistry.

“Working on small details in practice has helped me a lot.”

Pettersen’s recent hot streak has helped the Lumberjacks finally hit their pace. After a slow start to the season, when they were in and out of last place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, the Jacks have won 8 of their last 10 games, and have a six-game winning streak, which tied the franchise record for consecutive victories.

Despite his slow start, Pettersen said he never felt a lot of external pressure to produce.

“I was aware of it,” Pettersen said about the expectations. “But I never felt any pressure from the town or the team, even during the times when things weren’t going so well. Everything is a team effort for me, and that’s all I think of.

“Obviously I set high expectations for myself. It was frustrating not being able to do what I wanted to do, but I just stayed focused on doing the right things. I knew it would come.”

Emilio Peterson chases a loose puck against Team USA. Photo/Jason Goorman

Pettersen said the entire team retained its confidence during the bad months, even if that wasn’t obvious to frustrated fans.

“I think everyone knew we had the tools to be a really good team,” he said. “I think we kept believing the whole way, and now we’re building off that. Six-game winning streaks don’t come from nothing.

“We are playing together now, and we’re really focusing on defense and getting that done first, We always had the tools to do whatever we wanted to do offensively, but we wanted to score and win so badly that we forgot about playing good defense. Now we’re focusing on the D before the offense. It’s huge. Good defense leads to offense, so we’re all bearing down on that.”

After performing well last season, Pettersen had every reason to believe he would be back in Omaha this season. Instead he was traded for the first time in his young hockey career, and he admits it stung at first.

But now he says he’s very happy to be in Muskegon, playing for a team that’s clearly on the rise.

“It was not my choice to leave,” said Pettersen, who will play college hockey at the University of Denver next winter. “They just wanted me out of there. They were trying to rebuild and they didn’t want me to be a part of it. It did (hurt a little) at the time, because you build those relationships. But I knew right away that it’s a part of hockey.

“As soon as I heard that Muskegon was one of the options (in the summer trade talks), I was really excited about that. I had heard about the culture here, I knew about the team they had here last year, and I knew about Coach (John) LaFontaine’s reputation. That was a big part of it for me.”

Pettersen’s performance should be an inspiration to undersized athletes everywhere. He’s only 5-10 and 170 pounds, which might be viewed as a disadvantage in a sport filled with much bigger players.

But he says he’s learned over the years to use his small size to his advantage.

“I don’t really think of it as a weakness,” Pettersen said. “I just try to position myself well, and I try to use my speed and agility to get by people. ”

New year, new challenges

The new year will be full of challenges for the Lumberjacks.

On Friday they will attempt to set a new franchise record for consecutive wins when they visit the Dubuque Fighting Saints. The old record, which they tied on Sunday, dates back to the 2013-14 season.

The Jacks celebrate after a goal against Team USA last weekend. Photo/Jason Goorman

The Jacks will also play in Dubuque on Saturday night, then return for home games on Jan. 12 and 13 against the Green Bay Gamblers.

If they stay hot, the Lumberjacks have a chance to move up the USHL Eastern Conference standings quickly.

‘They are currently 12-11-2 and are tied with Cedar Rapids for fourth place in the conference with 26 points.

The two teams immediately ahead of Muskegon in the standings, Dubuque and Youngstown, have 28 points.. The second-place team, Chicago, has 29.

So the Jacks are only three points – a win and a tie – out of second place at the moment.

Green Bay leads the division with 33 points.

New player’s dad won a Cup with the Red Wings

The Lumberjacks have a new Red Wings connection.

They recently acquired forward Cam Knuble from the Des Moines Buccaneers for a player to be named later. The 17-year-old was an East Grand Rapids High School student until starting his USHL career this season.

He had one goal and one assist in 19 games for Des Moines.

Knuble is the son of Mike Knuble, a former member of the Detroit Red Wings who played on the 1998 Stanley Cup championship squad. Mike Knuble had a 16-year NHL career which also included stints with Boston, the New York Rangers, Washington and Philadelphia.

He retired in 2013, and has been an assistant coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins for the past four seasons.

The Lumberjacks started this season with goalie Matt Vernon on the roster. He is the son of former Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon.

Matt Vernon was released in October to gain more experience in a lower league.