John Gellat

Johnstown’s John Gellat lifts the puck past USA Hockey National Team Development Program U-18 goalie Kaidan Mbereko on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial. 

Some of the best young hockey players in the country visited 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial on Monday afternoon with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-18 squad.

That fact didn’t dent the Johnstown Tomahawks’ confidence level.

The inspired Tomahawks skated with the USA team –  briefly holding a first-period lead after a goal by John Gellat and forging ties at 2-all and 4-all – until University of Denver recruit Sean Behrens scored with 1:07 remaining to give USA Hockey NTDP a 5-4 victory.

“I’m really impressed with the Johnstown team,” USA Hockey NTDP Under-18 coach Dan Muse said. “Just a big, hard-working group. I thought they played a really difficult style to play against. They made it really hard on us. I thought they played a combination of a hard-working, grinding game – but there is a lot of speed on that team, which they used well.”

Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia certainly had no complaints about the effort both teams put forth in a noon exhibition contest played in front of several hundred fans.

The game was unexpectedly scheduled and announced after the Tomahawks’ 6-0 win over the visiting Northeast Generals on Friday.

“We had two games against Northeast, a quick weekend, then an afternoon game,” Letizia said.

“A lot of games in a short amount of time. But the chance to play the National Development U-18 team, a lot of guys who will be drafted by the NHL, it was a great opportunity for our guys and they answered the bell.”

USA Hockey NTDP Under-18 is comprised almost entirely of NCAA Division I commits, including players projected as future high picks in the NHL Draft.

Recruits from University of Notre Dame (four), Boston University (three), Boston College (two) and University of Michigan (two) and Northeastern (two) were in Johnstown. Penn State University, Arizona State, Wisconsin, Providence, Miami (Ohio) and University of Denver were represented on the USA roster.

• Luke Hughes, projected as a first-round NHL pick and a Michigan recruit, netted the USA squad’s first goal on a 5-on-3 advantage to tie the game after the Tomahawks’ John Gelatt opened the scoring. Hughes is one of three hockey-playing brothers, with his siblings Quinn Hughes going seventh overall to the Vancouver Canucks in 2018 and Jack Hughes being selected first overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 2019 NHL Draft.

• Ryan St. Louis, the son of former Tampa Bay Lightning great Martin St. Louis, assisted on the Hughes goal.

• Red Savage, whose father Brian played 14 NHL seasons with Montreal, Phoenix, St. Louis and Philadelphia, had a power-play goal to make it 3-2.

• Jeremy Wilmer, a Boston University recruit, had a goal and two assists for NTDP.

• Boston College recruit Aidan Hreschuk scored for USA.

• Jack Hughes – not the brother of USA Hockey’s Luke Hughes nor the first overall draft pick also named Jack Hughes – is on the USA squad. This Jack Hughes is a Northeastern University recruit in Hockey East.

The Tomahawks had a short-handed goal by Jared Gerger to tie the game at 2-all in the second period, then third-period goals by Dustin Geregach and Brendan Clark that made it 4-all.

“We definitely respect them as an opponent and we know who they are, but it wasn’t going to stop us,” Clark said. “We know how confident we are with our team in the room. We were just going to come out here, work our hardest and see where the chips fall.

“I thought we played a great game and I’m really proud of the guys in the room. It didn’t bounce our way, but we’re proud of our effort.”

USA Hockey NTDP goaltender Kaidan Mbereko had 28 saves. Johnstown’s Peyton Grainer stopped 31 shots.

NTDP went 3 of 8 on the power play, and the ‘Hawks were 1 of 4, with a short-handed score.

“We learned how important it is to understand that no matter who you play, when you play the game and you stay true to your team, you play consistent and play hard, good things can happen,” Letizia said. 

USA Hockey NTDP Under-18 played in Youngstown, Ohio, on Sunday against the USHL Phantoms, then traveled 21/2 hours to Johnstown.

“We played a 4 o’clock game in Youngstown and we bused over,” Muse said.

“It’s good for these guys to be in some of those quick turnaround games, too. It wasn’t the original plan but it’s the way it ended up needing to be. I actually liked it better this way.

“Just to have that quick turnaround and having to play again is a situation our guys are going to be in, in the future where you have to maybe travel and you have to be ready to play right away.”

Notes: The Tomahawks announced on Twitter that Point Park University student Taylor Spirito became the first female play-by-play broadcaster in team history during Monday's game. Spirito filled in for veteran broadcaster Rick Hull, who said he has been out due to COVID-19.

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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