A slow start. Squandered opportunities. And, a first-place team playing like a first-place team.
Those factors combined to put the Johnstown Tomahawks in a deep hole on Saturday night, one the home team never could climb out from in a 4-1 loss to the Port Huron Fighting Falcons.
“We were a little bit flat coming out of the gate,” Johnstown coach Jason Spence said after his team lost for the third time in its past four games. “I think that we have to get out to a quicker start.
“Last Friday (in a 2-0 win over visiting Soo), we banged and got pucks in deep and we had zone possession time. (Saturday) we tried to put the passes too much where the player is instead of getting it out in front of him and letting him skate.
“Credit Port Huron. That’s a good hockey team,” Spence added. “They’re in first place for a reason. The upsetting thing is we’re a lot better hockey team than we showed out there.”
The Tomahawks slipped to 8-8-1 with 17 points in the NAHL North Division.
Port Huron is 11-2-3 with 25 points and first place.
Port Huron’s road success at Cambria County War Memorial Arena only added to Johnstown’s frustration.
Saturday’s game, played in front of 2,575 fans, put the Fighting Falcons’ record at 7-1 against the Hawks at the War Memorial.
Overall, Port Huron is 11-3 against Johnstown since the 2012-13 season.
“We understand Johnstown is going to be gunning for us,” Port Huron coach Michael Gershon said, referring to today’s 1 p.m. rematch at the War Memorial. “For whatever reason we play pretty well here, but we need to make sure we come out hard in the first period or it could be the other way around.”
There were no doubts on Saturday.
Johnstown looked sluggish in the first period, then squandered some quality chances to take the momentum in the second.
Meanwhile, Port Huron displayed why it leads the division.
“We played maybe one of our best games all year,” Gershon said. “We came off a weekend where really we didn’t play well. We came away with three points (last weekend) but internally we knew we didn’t play well and we wanted to get back into our systems and philosophies.
“The guys bought into the system tonight.”
The Falcons’ Jon Hall scored 7:43 into the first period, and Nick Horne and Alex Archibald had goals in the second.
Port Huron’s Zach Badalamenti made it 4-0 in the third before Johnstown’s Brady Bender netted his first of the season with 4:17 left in the game.
“A little too late,” Spence said of the Tomahawks’ 14-5 shots advantage in the final period. “We need to be steaming at the beginning of the game, coming out of the gates. We didn’t have that. We had some guys trying to do for themselves more than for us together.
“That’s no good. You’ve got to be a team and do it together.”
Port Huron outshot Johnstown 30-29.
Rookie Tomahawks goaltender Brett Young kept his team in the game with several impressive stops, including a glove save on Vito Alvia’s second-period penalty shot.
The Tomahawks had some momentum at 12:12 of the second after Shane Bednard got the better of Austin Romzek in a lengthy and entertaining fight. Romzek also had a cross-checking penalty that put Johnstown on a power play.
But Port Huron was awarded a penalty shot while skating short-handed. Young made the glove save.
The War Memorial crowd was enthusiastic and loud after the fight, and the noise level increased after Young stopped the penalty shot.
But Johnstown’s Garrison Sanipass was penalized for head contact, negating the power play and snuffing out some of the buzz in the building.
“You have to take those certain sparks and you have to do something,” Spence said. “When you’re a little bit flat, you have to find a way. That would have been a really good time. We had a couple real good shifts after that (fight). We had a power play.
“On the power play we took the penalty for the penalty shot. Thirty seconds later we took another penalty. Aggressive is one thing, but…”
Late in the second, the Tomahawks pressured Falcons goalie Alex Blankenburg (28 saves), but a shot by Omar Mullan and two by Bender hit the pipe, and Shane Cuckovich had a good shot that Blankenburg turned away.
“That’s going to happen in games, and the teams that are there at the end are the ones that can handle the pressure,” Gershon said. “You’re always going to get push-back from teams. We knew they didn’t play a great first period and Jason was going to let them know that, and they were going to come out hard in the second.”