Lofty expectations await the Johnstown Tomahawks as the North American Hockey League team opens its 2019-20 season at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday night.

Coach Mike Letizia’s team is coming off a record-breaking season in which the Tomahawks had league-highs with 47 wins and 98 points. Johnstown advanced to the Robertson Cup semifinal round in Blaine, Minnesota.

Only nine players return from that squad, however, so the Tomahawks will be relatively inexperienced while trying to build on the momentum of last season.

Face-off on Friday is 7 p.m. The teams also play at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Revolution Ice Centre.

“It’s definitely different,” Letizia said of the Tomahawks’ outlook. “You’re always super excited when you start a new season. 

“Now we’re definitely the hunted.

“We made that situation for ourselves with last year’s success. But I’ve said many times, ‘Last year is over. You can’t live in the past.’ ”

Returnees from the 2018-19 team include forwards Andrew Murphy, Colin Price, Christian Gorscak, Pavel Kharin, Sean Bauchens, Bennett Stockdale; and defensemen Chris Trouba, Matthew Doyle and Ethan Webb.

“There is a combination of a lot of speed, a lot of grit and a little bit of experience in our lineup,” Letizia said. “This year might be more defined in terms of offensive guys and guys who are defensive (at forward).”

Both goaltenders are new to the roster.

Evan Szary played for the New Jersey Hitmen in the National Collegiate Developmental Conference last season, and Matthew Sankner split time between Fargo in the United States Hockey League and with the Lone Star Brahmas in the NAHL.

“They both made some big saves at different points of the game,” Letizia said of his goaltenders’ play in a pair of exhibition games against the United States National Under-17 Development Team at 1st Summit Arena last weekend. “They both were very solid. They gave up some goals but they were high-quality scoring chances against guys who can put the puck into the net.”

Trouba is entering his fourth season with the Tomahawks. The team captain recently returned from Sochi, Russia, where he played on Team NAHL in the Sirius Junior World Cup.

The Tomahawks defenseman missed the final two Junior World Cup games with an upper body injury and did not suit up for the exhibition games in Johnstown, though Letizia said he expected Trouba to be fine for the regular season.

“It’s great to have him back on the ice and off the ice,” Letizia said. “He should be good to go for Friday.”

The Tomahawks lost 5-1 in the first exhibition game against Team USA, but came back to win 6-4 in the second contest.

“I liked our response from Saturday to Sunday,” Letizia said of the exhibition split. 

“I thought we got better as the game went along on Saturday. It was our first game and it was a lot of new guys, different guys. 

“As much as you practice, it’s a much different situation when you play an opponent.

“Our approach at the start of the game was much better on Sunday. We were crisp. We were aggressive. We cleaned things up.”

After the two games in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Tomahawks will participate in the four-day NAHL Showcase at the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, from Sept. 18-21.

The Tomahawks’ home opener will be against the New Jersey Titans on Sept. 27 and the teams will meet again on Sept. 28 at 1st Summit Arena.

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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