By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Going into the 2017-18 season, the Muskegon Lumberjacks were wondering who might emerge as their offensive star.

They knew they had a number of talented forwards, but they weren’t sure if they had a true go-to guy, like Andre Svechnikov and Collin Adams last season.

As it turned out, there was no need for concern, because the next big scorer has been here all along.

Lumberjacks captain Anthony Del Gaizo, in his third season with the team, has been scoring steadily all season, and has been on an offensive surge since the turn of the year.

He’s tallied a red-hot eight goals in the last five games, along with five assists.

The hot streak has landed Del Gaizo at the top of the USHL scoring leader board. He leads the league in goals with 22, six ahead of second-place Jack Dugan of Chicago. He also leads the overall league scoring race with 36 points, two ahead of Dugan.

Anthony Del Gaizo

Del Gaizo will try to keep his hot streak going this weekend when the Lumberjacks start the second half of the season with games in Chicago on Friday night and Waterloo on Saturday.

The Jacks will try to continue their recent surge in the standings. After lingering near the bottom of the USHL’s Eastern Conference in October and November, Muskegon is now in third place with a 15-13-2 record.

The Jacks, who have won 11 of their last 15 games dating back to late November, are only one point behind second-place Chicago and three points behind Team USA and Green Bay, who are tied for first.

Del Gaizo has increased his offensive production dramatically from last season, when he finished with a respectable 11 goals and 13 assists.

He credits his linemates, Matej Pekar and Mikael Hakkarainen, for his recent output.

“My line is pretty tremendous,” Del Gaizo said. “Our chemistry is just off the charts. Every shift it seems like we get quality opportunities, and when you get opportunities you learn how to score in different situations.”

Muskegon captain Anthony Del Gaizo controls the puck along the boards. Photo/Jason Goorman

Del Gaizo admits he’s taking some personal satisfaction from his performance this season.

“There’s nothing better than scoring goals – anyone would say that,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a role-player type of guy. I figured I could have a big year this year, but I didn’t expect this. I’ve been proving to myself I can get it done.”

Del Gaizo recently said he thinks the Lumberjacks are the best team in the league. Now at the season’s midpoint, he’s sticking by those words.

“Coming out of preseason I thought we were extremely strong,” he said. “Even when we went through that slump I felt we were in most games. Even being banged up right now (with injuries), we’re still winning a lot of games. We changed up our schemes a bit and it’s definitely helped.”

Adam Brizgala released

The Lumberjacks’ crowded goalie situation got a lot more simple earlier this week.

Keegan Karki is now the starter, and Adam Brizgala has been released.

Brizgala, a second-year Lumberjack, began the season as the undisputed starting goalie after putting up good numbers last season. But the team struggled in the early months, then Brizgala missed five games in December while competing for his native Czech Republic in the World Junior A Challenge tournament in Canada.

Adam Brizgala

That left the door open for Karki, whom the Lumberjacks picked up in October to be the backup goalie, after the original backup, Matt Vernon, was released. Karki has taken advantage of increased playing time over the past two months, posting an 11-7 record with a 3.05 goals against average and helping the Jacks set a franchise-record with seven straight wins.

As of last week, Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine said that the role of starting goalie would remain open, and the guy who was playing the best at any time would get the nod.

But last weekend the Jacks acquired Russian defenseman Alex Yakovenko, which put them over the limit for foreign-born players, and Brizgala was released.

“It was very, very difficult,” LaFontaine said about the move. “Briz is as good a kid, with the highest character, you can have, and he did everything we asked of him. But he wasn’t playing. So there are times you make decisions based on what’s best for the player, and he’s got colleges looking at him and he deserves a chance to play.

“With that said, we believe that how far you go can oftentimes depend on your d-corps. We believe Alex (Yakovenko) makes us better on the back end.”

The Lumberjacks have added Zach Borgiel to be their backup goalie. He has been playing for Brookings of the North American Hockey League since being cut by the Jacks in training camp.

Brizgala has reported to Brookings, according to the team.

In two other player moves this week, the Lumberjacks traded defenseman Blake Evennou to Tri-City for a future draft pick, and picked up forward Jagger Joshua on waivers from Youngstown.

Joshua was scoreless in nine games with the Phantoms this season.

Crowder earns league honor

Following a four-point, two-goal weekend, the Lumberjacks’ Bray Crowder has been named the USHL defenseman of the week.

Bray Crowder

The 6-foot-6 native of Whitefish, Ontario scored a goal in Friday’s 5-3 win over first-place Green Bay, and added another goal and two assists in Saturday’s 5-2 victory over the Gamblers.

Saturday’s three-point game was Crowder’s first-career multi-point game in the USHL.

Crowder has now scored five goals this season, the second-most of any defenseman in the USHL, and just one behind league-leading Ronnie Attard of Tri-City.

Crowded medical list

The Lumberjacks’ recent success is even more impressive, considering they have several talented players missing from the lineup with injuries.

Two of those players could be back in the lineup relatively soon.

The Jacks are hopeful that Jachym Kondelik will return to the lineup soon.

Forward Michael Graham, who’s been out with a concussion since early in the season, has been getting extra medical treatment and therapy in Pittsburgh, and could be cleared by doctors to play this week, according to Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck. He could be back at practice as early as next week.

Forward Jachym Kondelik suffered a shoulder injury in December while he was playing in international tournaments with the Czech Republic world junior teams. He is expected back in practice soon, and will be back in the lineup when he’s properly conditioned, Vanbiesbrouck said.

Unfortunately forward Wyatt Bongiovanni, one of the Jacks’ most productive scorers in recent months, will be missing for awhile. He suffered a severe shoulder dislocation on Jan. 5 during a game in Dubuque, and has been put on the injured reserve list. He is eligible to come off the injured list on Feb. 16.