T.J. Koufis

Johnstown Tomahawks’ T.J. Koufis takes the puck down the ice during a North American Hockey League game against the Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks’ at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown, PA., Friday, Jan. 22, 2021.

The Johnstown Tomahawks organization celebrated coach Mike Letizia’s birthday two days early on Saturday.

A scoreboard video presentation featured players and family members wishing Letizia well prior to a game against the Maryland Black Bears.

The Tomahawks then delivered an early birthday gift with a 2-1 victory in another tight contest against the Black Bears at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial.

Johnstown forward TJ Koufis had a goal and an assist to earn the game’s No. 1 star. During the traditional postgame on-ice interview with the public address announcer, Koufis was asked if the players had purchased a special gift for their coach.

“I wasn’t involved in that process,” the quick-thinking Koufis said.

A moment later, Koufis added, “Hey, he got four points.”

The NAHL East Division-leading Tomahawks won a pair of games this weekend – including 3-1 on Friday.

Johnstown is 4-2-1 against Maryland, with six of the games decided by one goal.

“We talk about these types of games when they’re greasy, grinding types of games,” said Letizia, who will turn 36 on Monday. “You’ve got to really get out of your comfort zone at times and that isn’t easy. You have to be willing to do the little things, blocking shots.

“I saw Holt Oliphant driving pucks out at the end, trying to preserve the lead. Ethan Webb had a bunch of blocks. That’s what it takes. It was a playoff type of game.”

Goaltender Josh Graiziano turned away 20 shots in his Tomahawks debut after being acquired ahead of Wednesday’s roster freeze deadline.

“He was a rock in there,” Letizia said.

The Tomahawks (18-5-2) moved into sole possession of first place with 39 points, two more than idle Maine and 10 better than third-place Maryland.

Johnstown is 13-0-1 at home this season. An estimated 1,000 fans attended on Saturday.

“It’s just a different atmosphere,” Koufis said of playing at the War Memorial. “I think we’re fortunate to have some fans here. The people are so supportive of us through these tough times. I think we feed off the energy. It's our barn. We're not going to let anyone come in here and beat us. I think it’s home-ice confidence.”

Tomahawks captain Alex Gritz made it 1-0 12:42 into the game. Forward William Persson attempted the initial shot from the slot, but a Black Bears defender got a stick on the puck, which caromed to Gritz in the left-wing circle.

Gritz skated to the middle of the crease, held on for an extra second, then made a move and placed a shot just inside the far post.

Johnstown’s Koufis scored from the low slot at 9:33 to make it 2-0.

“I whiffed on that first shot and thought it was going to be a turnover the other way but I stuck with it, second and third effort, and just put it on net,” Koufis said. “It had eyes and found a way. It’s not going to be pretty.”

Graziano was poised to get through the middle period with a shutout intact, but the Black Bears converted a late power play via Aidan McDowell’s goal at 18:20 to set a 2-1 score.

“Coming off the loss last week (at New Jersey), I think it was big for us to bounce back and get a couple wins,” Koufis said. “I don’t think coach is expecting anything less than four points.”

Letizia got those points – a perfect birthday present.

“It’s always nice to get four points at home,” Letizia said.

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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Sports Reporter

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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