USA Hockey's National Team Development Program (17U) vs. Johnstown Tomahawks

Johnstown Tomahawks forward #19 Max Neill battles for the buck against USA Hockey's National Team Development Program (17U) forward #38 Logan Cooley during the first period of an exhibition game held at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial on Sunday, October 4, 2020.

A few thousand fans will be missing. There won’t be an outdoor festival or live band outside the arena, either.

But Johnstown Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia and his players still appreciate the opportunity to play their home opener at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial on Friday night.

The Tomahawks (1-0-1) will play the East Division-leading Maine Nordiques (2-0-0) at 7:30 p.m., as 1,005 participants and fans are permitted in the facility under current COVID-19 pandemic-related guidelines.

“Any game you have in your home building is always exciting,” Letizia said of the Tomahawks’ ninth home opener in the North American Hockey League. “We’re going to have a little different circumstances. 

“Normally a home opener is a packed house but we’re thankful to be playing. We’d like to be at capacity but at the end of the day, it’s still special.

“This year, after what we went through at the end of last season and what we’ve gone through this season, every game that we play we have to take it as a blessing and make the best of every game.”

The NAHL suspended the 2019-20 season and eventually canceled the final weeks of the regular season and the playoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tomahawks notched a wild 7-6 overtime win against the Maryland Black Bears on Sunday to open the current season, which had been delayed due to the coronavirus. Johnstown fell behind 6-1 early but rallied back to win in the extra session on the road.

“Obviously you never want to spot a team a 6-1 lead but I didn’t mind how we were playing to be honest,” Letizia said. “The scoreboard didn’t look good in our favor. But our guys never let their energy go down.

“They believed we could come back. Once we started chipping away and made it 6-4, we felt we had a chance.”

Third-year league veteran Anthony Mastromonica converted on a power play 3:08 into the third period, and Mikol Sartor netted the game-tying goal at 7:25 in the season opener. John Gelatt scored 4:11 into overtime to win it for the ‘Hawks.

“Not how you draw it up,” Letizia said. “A character win.”

The Black Bears reversed the outcome on a rare Monday morning game. Johnstown led 3-1 on goals by Brendan Clark, Gelatt and Mastromonica, but allowed two late third-period goals and fell in overtime.

“The final 10 minutes, we made a couple of errors and the puck went into the back of our net,” Letizia said. “They got a late goal to tie it, and we got a taste of our own medicine.

“We learned how important consistency is and how hard this league is. There are no days off. It’s competitive.”

With three goals in two games, Mastromonica earned second star in the NAHL East Division. The Kings Park, New York, native began his career with the Tomahawks in 2018-19 but spent most of the past two seasons with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights.

“He just kind of showed every reason why we reacquired him and what we were looking for out of him,” Letizia said. “He played a big power game. He had scoring ability with three goals. He played his game hard. He won a lot of face-offs for us. He won battles.

“As an assistant captain, he’s going to be a leader on this team. He’s a presence.”

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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