The Johnstown Tomahawks pushed up the starting time of Saturday’s home game against Kenai River, Alaska, by 2 hours.
The NAHL organization didn’t want their fans to miss the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game against the rival Baltimore Ravens later in the evening.
The Tomahawks were ready to play from the outset against the Brown Bears, scoring five goals and riding another solid performance by goaltender Jake Gwillim to a 5-2 victory in front of 1,657 fans at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
“We have these home games, and we’ve got to make sure we cash them in,” Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia said. “One period against Fairbanks (on Tuesday) let us down, but other than that I like the way we’ve played. We have three games at home next week. It’s a heck of an opportunity for us to keep moving on.”
The Tomahawks won their third straight, with a two-game sweep of Kenai River in which the team scored 10 goals.
Johnstown is 5-2-1 with 29 goals scored in its past eight games dating to Dec. 13.
The stretch has helped the Hawks climb three games over .500 (16-13-2) and enabled Letizia’s squad to climb from last place to fourth in the North, only one point behind third-place Keystone.
“We were focused,” Letizia said. “We got down early, but these guys have a different mindset. There was no panic. We got back to playing our game.”
The line of left wing Casey Linkenheld (2-1-3), center Trevor Recktenwald (1-1-2) and right wing Joe Drabin (0-2-2) accounted for three goals and seven points.
One night after becoming only the second Tomahawk to score a hat trick, Linkenheld had two goals and a plus-3 rating. He has 12 points in his past six games and rates a plus-8 this season.
Recktenwald has 15 points in his past 11 games.
“I’ve got to give all the credit to my linemates,” Drabin said.
Kenai River’s Joey Sardina put the Brown Bears in front 1-0 only 1:52 into the game.
“This is a game of momentum,” Drabin said. “When you get down, the biggest thing you have to do is bounce back. We did that pretty well.”
Johnstown’s Brady Bender tied the score by converting a 5-on-3 power play at 6:34. Dakoda Menslage had the assist.
The Tomahawks took a 2-1 advantage on Linkenheld’s goal at 8:12 with the teams skating 4-on-4. Defenseman Alex Jaeckle started the play with a long pass from near his own goal line to Linkenheld at the blue line near the Kenai River bench.
Linkenheld took the puck in stride, worked his way into the slot and used a backhand move to beat Alec Derks.
“I just saw their ‘D’ were kind of cheating on the play, and I just snuck behind them,” Linkenheld said. “Luckily enough, Jaeckle saw me cutting across, and he made a pass right on my tape, and I was able to drive in and tuck it five-hole. We always work on that, and we talk about slipping past their ‘D.’ ”
Johnstown goaltender Gwillim kept the one-goal lead by stopping Kenai River’s Zack Zulkanycz from point-blank range with just over 6 minutes left in the first. Gwillim made 25 saves and improved to 4-1-0-0.
“When you see your goalie just lay out for you like that in a close game, it gets the whole bench going and gives us energy. We fed off that, and it got us going,” Linkenheld said.
The Tomahawks added three second-period goals and led 5-2.
Linkenheld converted a power-play with some solid work in front of the net at 11:45.
“We’ve been trying to get more shots from the point on our power play,” Linkenheld said. “We got pucks to the point. They got shots. We crashed hard. The puck came out, and we banged it home.”
Josh Bowes scored at 14:37, and Recktenwald netted his 10th of the season at 15:52 to make it a four-goal lead and chase Derks.
Kenai River’s Matt Rudlin scored with 38 seconds remaining in the second.
“It starts from the goalie up,” Drabin said. “Everyone is contributing. It’s starting to bounce our way. Everyone is blocking shots. The puck is starting to go in the net for us.”
The Tomahawks successfully killed five Brown Bears power plays, including a 5-on-3 that lasted 1:11.
“Our penalty kill has been huge the whole season,” Drabin said.
The Tomahawks will play three home games next weekend, as Keystone visits Friday, and Springfield visits on Saturday and Sunday.