MUSKEGON, MI- Nearly 150 prospective players came out to the Muskegon Lumberjacks’ main tryout camp over Memorial Day weekend, but the group was trimmed down to 40 by the end of the three-day camp.
The event culminated with Sunday’s All-Star game that featured the camp’s top players, selected by the Jacks’ hockey staff.
The best was indeed saved for last this weekend: the All-Star game was a thriller, and several players made their names known to the several hundred Jacks fans in attendance.
Team Gold and Team Black went back and forth for three periods, with Team Black taking the early 3-1 lead after one. Team Gold rallied in the second, scoring three unanswered to get on top 4-3. Team Black was able to tie it in the third, and took the 5-4 lead on John Mulera’s penalty shot goal.
With the goaltender pulled and on a power play, Team Gold got the late equalizer when returning defenseman Marc Del Gaizo lit the lamp with only 4.9 seconds remaining in regulation. Tied at five, the already entertaining All-Star game would become even more thrilling.
The teams trimmed down to three men a side for OT, and for better than five minutes, goaltenders Strauss Mann and Matt Vernon stole the show. After ceding the late goal to Del Gaizo, Mann recorded a series of mind-boggling saves for Team Black in the extra period to keep them alive long enough for Mulera to get another golden chance.
Coming in on a breakaway, Mulera used a wrist shot to beat Vernon, and Team Black was victorious 6-5.
Mulera, who was on the Lumberjacks’ affiliate list last season and played at the Winchendon School in Massachusetts, recorded three points in the All-Star game and flashed drool-worthy potential. He possesses strong puckhandling skills, creativity, speed and a scoring touch. The Providence commit and 1999-birthyear was drafted in the 11th round of 2016’s Phase II draft.
Mulera hopes to be named to the 30-man roster that GM John Vanbiesbrouck must submit to the USHL in mid July. Vanbiesbrouck will have a series of very difficult decisions to make: there were very few weaknesses to be found in the 40-player All-Star game, and there were three notable players absent. Goaltender Adam Brizgala and centers Jachym Kondelik and Monte Graham were not able to make the trip.
Newly-acquired Emilio Pettersen was outstanding all weekend, looking like the best player on the ice when he was out there. Also acquired after the completion of the season, winger Wyatt Bongiovanni showed off a skillset that features not only the ability to create scoring opportunities for himself and his linemates, but also strength and grit.
Mark Cheremeta, who played five games for Muskegon last regular and postseason, was a standout on Friday playing alongside Reggie Millette and Max Sasson. Cheremeta didn’t register a point in the All-Star game, but Millette and Sasson (both 2000-birthyears) each scored.
Defensively, the Jacks will have four returning players entering next season. Marc Del Gaizo and Colby Bukes are the likely top pair, followed by Travis Mitchell and Ty Farmer. Additionally, Cooper Zech, Collin Murphy and Caleb Everett saw some USHL action this season and were solid over the weekend. New blueliners Nash Neinhaus, Michael Mannara and John Stampohar all impressed, and the trio of new faces all provide offensive firepower.
With camp now concluded, the heavy lifting is winding down for the Lumberjacks’ hockey staff led by Vanbiesbrouck. The evaluation process has come to a close, and now the final task is underway: whittling the roster down to 30 by the July 11 deadline. Those 30 players will be the ones who attend fall camp in August, and the ones who compete for the 23 available roster spots for the regular season.