The Johnstown Tomahawks spotlighted three banners the North American Hockey League team earned last season prior to the start of Friday’s home opener at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
Then, the Tomahawks played a game that resembled so many during a record-breaking 2018-19 campaign, especially at home, where the team won 26 of 28 games last season.
Coach Mike Letizia’s team did manage to make some “new” history in front of 1,829 fans.
For the first time in the team’s eight seasons, the Tomahawks won their home opener via a 5-2 victory over the East Division-leading New Jersey Titans.
“It’s incredible,” said first-year forward Tristan Poissant, whose two third-period goals put Johnstown on track to the win. “The fans are incredible. It’s the first time I played in an environment like that.
“It’s pretty special.”
Phil Bourque, who won two Stanley Cup rings as a player with the Pittsburgh Penguins and was part of three more championships as a Pens’ broadcaster, dropped the ceremonial first puck.
Bourque participated in a Q&A session in front of 100 fans in the Stars and Stripes room before the game. “The Ol’ Two-Niner” signed autographs in the Party Pit well into the third period.
“This Tomahawks organization, all I can say is my interaction being here three or four times – first class,” said Bourque, who signed his first professional contract with the Penguins during the 1982 training camp held at the War Memorial.
On the ice, the game was tied at 2 through 40 minutes even though Johnstown’s Spencer DenBeste had scored 12 seconds in and the Tomahawks led 2-0 in the second until New Jersey netted a pair of power-play goals.
“It was a great start. That line has been a fantastic line for us,” Letizia said of forwards DenBeste, Pavel Kharin and Carson Grainer.
“Spencer got us going right off the bat. I thought we carried the play for the majority of the period.
“It was nice to get that second goal, Marty’s (Nick Martino) first goal of the season.”
Martino scored 3:43 into the second period, with an assist by Malik Alishlalov.
New Jersey’s Shane Haviland converted a power play at 5:30 and Brody Medeiros tied the game with another power-play tally at 19:19 of the second period.
“We talked going into the third and said we had to continue to play the way we wanted to play and stay disciplined and not give them any extra opportunities,” Letizia said. “I thought in the third period we just came out with a lot of fire and didn’t give them much.”
The 3-3-1 Tomahawks outshot the Titans 12-3 in the third period, with Poissant scoring at 2:29 and again at 11:15. Colin Price assisted on both goals, and Christian Gorscak had an assist on the second one.
“We played a good game,” Poissant said. “It was great for my first home game to score two goals. I think there is more to come but most importantly is we won this game.”
Price added an empty-net goal with 50.7 seconds left.
“We know this time of year it’s not going to be perfect hockey and we’re going to make mistakes,” Price said. “We had to stick to our game plan, play hard, keep it simple and capitalize on our chances.
“We used our speed and played our game,” Price added. “We get the puck to the open area and guys are finishing.”
Goalender Alex Tracy improved to 3-0-0 after stopping 16 of 18 shots. The Titans converted 2 of 6 power-play chances.
“For a rookie, Alex played calm and collected and made some big saves,” Letizia said. “He wasn’t tested much in the third period, but he made the stops when he had to make them.”
The Tomahawks and Titans play again at 7 p.m. Saturday at 1st Summit Arena.
The Titans entered the game with a 5-1-0 record atop the division.
“It’s going to be a big fight, a big push back,” Price said of the rematch.
Johnstown eliminated New Jersey in the second round of last season’s Robertson Cup playoffs to earn the division postseason crown.
That banner as well as the banners for earning the NAHL and East Division regular-season titles were displayed on the wall between Sections 14 and 15 and highlighted during introductions.
“We can’t thank our fans enough,” Price said. “They’re the best fans in the league, best fans in junior hockey in my opinion. Having them come out and support us is great.”