Max Kouznetsov appeared in only two of the Johnstown Tomahawks’ first eight games this North American Hockey League season.

Then, the first-year player from Voorhees, New Jersey, came back from an injury with two goals and three points in a 5-4 road victory against the Maine Black Bears on Oct. 4. Kouznetzov didn’t slow down.

The Tomahawks named Kouznetzov as the team Offensive Rookie of the Year on Saturday. 

The high-scoring forward ranked second on the team with 49 points, including 15 goals. He averaged 1.09 points a game for the East Division second-place ’Hawks.

“It’s awesome,” Kouznetsov said during a telephone interview on Saturday. “I’ve got to thank all of my teammates and linemates for helping me out this year and making it possible for me.”

Kouznetsov had four power-play goals and three multi-goal games. 

He rebounded from an injury suffered during the September NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota, and was a key player as the Tomahawks finished with eight straight wins. Johnstown won 10 of its final 11 games until the NAHL season was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

“At first we were kind of finding our stride and trying to figure out who we are as a team and what type of game we’d play,” Kouznetsov said. “Obviously, as our record showed, we were 8-0 in the last eight games. At the end we really found it.

“We play a fast, physical game. Teams find it hard to play against us. It’s tough that we can’t show that in the playoffs, but I think everyone knew we were the hardest team to play against in the East Division.”

Another player who Tomahawks opponents found difficult to beat was goaltender Alex Tracy, who was named Defensive Rookie of the Year on Saturday. Previously, Tracy had shared Tomahawks Defensive Player of the Year honors with fellow goaltender David Tomeo earlier this week.

Tracy won 17 games and ranked second in the NAHL with a .935 save percentage. He had a 2.12 goals against average and led the team with four shutouts.

“He came in as a young goalie with zero junior experience,” Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia said. “He got us our first win of the season and continued to improve all season long to where he became one of the top goalies in all of the league.

“The sky is the limit for him and I think his rookie year was just the beginning.”

Tracy said he probably will return to the Tomahawks next season.

“As of right now I plan to be back in Johnstown,” Tracy said in a telephone interview. “I absolutely love playing here. I don’t think I could have landed in a better spot, especially with the fans and the town. 

“It’s a great atmosphere and a great place to play. I can’t imagine myself putting on another jersey this fall.”

Kouznetsov signed a letter of intent to play next season at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He said he’ll miss the Johnstown fans.

“Unbeliveable. You go from last year five or 10 people at a game, mostly little kids,” Kouznetsov said of his time in the National Collegiate Development Conference. “Now you’ve got a whole stadium with 3,000 people cheering you on.

“The New Year’s Eve game is my biggest memory. When I scored that goal and seeing all of the people standing up was unbelievable.”

Drew Murphy was named the Tomahawks Most Improved Player. The 19-year-old Youngstown native was a healthy scratch for much of the 2018-19 season before working his way to become a key player in 42 games this past season.

The 6-foot-4 Murphy scored 11 goals and 20 points. He had three game-winning goals and a plus-8 rating while providing a physical presence in front of the net. 

“He never stopped working on his game or finding ways to learn,” Letizia said. “He emerged as such an important player for us this season, becoming valuable in all areas of the game.”

The Most Valuable Player award was given to the fans and the entire Tomahawks community and roster. Johnstown has posted a home record of 44-5-2 over the past two seasons.

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.

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