By Steve Gunn and Jason Goorman

MUSKEGON – When the Muskegon Lumberjacks score a goal, pretty much everyone in the building knows who put the puck in the net.

But sometimes fans are not so aware of the guy who set up the play that resulted in the goal.

Matej Pekar has been that guy a lot this season.

Pekar, a 17-year-old forward from the Czech Republic, currently has 27 assists on the season. That ranks third in the United States Hockey League.

While he only has seven goals, Pekar has 34 total points (goals plus assists), which puts him in 10th place in the overall league scoring race.

The only Lumberjack with bigger numbers is Anthony Del Gaizo, who leads the league with 27 goals and is second in the overall scoring race with 43 points.

Pekar and Del Gaizo will lead the Lumberjacks into a pair of important home games on Friday and Saturday against conference rival Madison. Puck drop is 7:15 p.m. both nights.

Muskegon is currently 19-16-2 with 40 points, which puts them in a third-place tie with Chicago in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.

Matej Pekar. Photo/Jason Goodman

Assists have become something of a specialty for Pekar. The other nine leading point producers in the league – except for one – have at least 13 goals, and most have significantly more.

Before this season, Pekar was a lot like those guys. In 2015-16, playing in the Detroit area for Jimmy Johns, he had 37 goals and only 17 assists. Last season, playing for the Oakland Junior Grizzlies, he had a more balanced 13 goals and 14 assists.

So how has he suddenly turned into Muskegon’s assist king? It’s all about vision and playmaking abilities, according to Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine.

“He’s very, very smart and skilled, and he’s got really good vision,” LaFontaine said. “He sees the play before it happens, and works with his linemates very well. He’s a passer before a shooter, that’s for sure.”

Pekar has clearly thrived all season playing on the Jacks’ top line with Anthony Del Gaizo and one of several other talented forwards – usually Jachym Kondelik or Mikael Hakkarainen – both of whom have been in and out of the lineup with various injuries.

Pekar said he doesn’t mind being the playmaker for  linemates who can score a lot of goals.

“I’m just trying to feed the puck to the other two,” said Pekar, who is committed to play college hockey at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. “They have goal-scoring abilities. I know I can set them up.

“I’ve been trying to work hard for loose pucks. That’s kind of my game. I’m more of a digger on this line.”

That doesn’t mean Pekar is happy just setting up goals. He said he would like to score a bit more himself, but for some reason, it’s not happening.

No. 12 Matej Pekar tries to get a stick on the loose puck in front of Youngstown goalie Ivan Prosvetov. Photo/Jason Goorman

“I honestly don’t know what’s going on,” Pekar said. “I’ve been trying to figure that out for the whole season. It’s not going in when I shoot, but it’s been going in for the other two guys. I’m happy about that.”

LaFontaine says he knows one way Pekar could score more goals.

“We would like him to shoot more,” the coach said.

Unlike several of his linemates, Pekar has been healthy all season, and on the ice for the Lumberjacks’ high and lows.

He was there when they stumbled out of the gate with a 4-9-2 record early in the season. He was also part of the exciting turnaround, when they won 11 of 14 games between Nov. 25 and Jan. 13, including a franchise-record seven victories in a row.

“I think we started working harder off the puck, battling in the corners more, and playing way better defense,” Pekar said. “We’re playing way better in our own zone, which gives us more scoring opportunities.”

While the Lumberjacks have been trending upward for several months, they’ve also taken a few lumps lately. But they’ve bounced right back every time.

On Jan. 15 and 16, they lost 8-5 to Team USA and 6-2 to Chicago. They responded by winning the next two games.

On Jan. 27 they were hammered 10-1 at home by Team USA, then again responded with two straight wins.

Last Saturday they lost 6-1 in Fargo. So can we expect another positive reaction this weekend?

“We always say when games like that come, we just throw it behind us and play our game the next game,” Pekar said. “It’s a new day, a new game. We know we have the skill to beat the next opponent.”