By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – It’s hard to believe that Keegan Karki was a goalie without a team when the season began.

He was released by the Omaha Lancers in training camp, and was picked up by the Lumberjacks early in the fall to be their backup goalie, after the original backup was cut.

But Karki got a chance to see game action in Muskegon, and took full advantage. Now he’s fully vested as the Lumberjacks’ starter, and one of the top goalies in the USHL.

Karki was at the top of his game again on Wednesday, stopping 29 shots to lead the Lumberjacks to an important 3-1 victory over the Chicago Steel in front of 1,217 fans at L.C. Walker Arena.

Karki now has 20 wins on the season, the second-highest among league goalies.

Keegan Karki makes the save for Muskegon. Photo/Marc Hoeksema

“Good for him,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine about Karki’s 20th win. “He deserves it tonight. We gave up a lot of power play opportunities and he came up big.”

The Lumberjacks improved to 27-21-1 on the season and took another step toward securing a playoff spot. With 10 games left in the regular season, the Jacks’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth is now 13 points.

Two points come off the magic number total with every Muskegon win, and one for a tie. The total also shrinks when the seventh-place team in the Eastern Conference, currently Madison, loses a game or has a regulation tie.

The Lumberjacks will continue their push toward the playoffs with a pair of home games Friday and Saturday night against Cedar Rapids. Puck drop is 7:15 p.m. both nights.

Wednesday’s victory also allowed the Lumberjacks to get past Saturday’s disappointing loss to last-place Central Illinois out of their system.

“I think everyone in that locker room was disappointed about losing Saturday,” LaFontaine said. “We fought back in that game, but you can’t get down like that and lose to a team that hadn’t won in 16 games.

“But we can back tonight, got extremely strong goaltending from Karki, and won. It was a great effort.”

Muskegon’s Anthony Del Gaizo fights against pressure from Derek Daschke. Photo/Marc Hoeksema

The one down side to the game were penalties. The Lumberjacks were called for eight infractions for 16 minutes in the penalty box, compared to five penalties for Chicago.

Luckily Karki and the Jacks’ penalty-killers held Chicago to just one power play goal. But LaFontaine was not happy about the penalties, which have been a continuing issue for his team.

Muskegon is second in the USHL in penalty minutes, behind only the Lincoln Stars.

“It’s a concern every night and every week,” the coach said. “It’s a frustrating thing as a coach and we are doing what we can to correct it.”

The Lumberjacks struck first when Vincent de Mey chipped in a rebound for a goal at 12:03 of the first period.

They went up 2-0 on Marc Del Gaizo’s 10th goal of the season at 6:53 of the second period.

Anthony Del Gaizo made the score 3-0 midway through the third with his league-leading 36th goal. Chicago’s Nick Abruzzese broke the shutout with a power play goal with about 7 1/2 minutes left in the contest.

Muskegon outshot Chicago 44-29.

Wyatt Bongiovanni and Matej Pekar each had two assists for Muskegon while Bray Crowder and Mikael Hakkarainen had one apiece.