The logo of Johnstown's North American Hockey League team.

After nearly three weeks of drills, practices and intra-squad scrimmages, the Johnstown Tomahawks are eager to face an opponent.

“To be honest, we’re really looking forward to finally playing another team,” said coach Mike Letizia, whose Tomahawks will play two exhibition contests against the United States National Under-17 Developmental Team. “We’ve been in camp since Aug. 19 and not having a true exhibition game.”

Two exhibition games scheduled for last weekend were cancelled after the Elmira Junior Soaring Eagles team had three players injured in an automobile accident.

“At this point everybody is ready to play somebody else,” Letizia said. 

“It’s going to be a good challenge against a team that’s probably going to have a few future NHL Draft picks.”

The Tomahawks will play the national developmental team at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. Both games are at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial.

The Johnstown camp roster has 30 players, with nine returnees from the Tomahawks’ record-breaking 2018-19 team that advanced to the NAHL Robertson Cup semifinal round.

Returnees include: Defensemen Chris Trouba, Matthew Doyle, and Ethan Webb; and forwards Andrew Murphy, Colin Price, Christian Gorscak, Pavel Kharin, Sean Bauchens and Bennett Stockdale.

Both goaltenders – Evan Szary and Matthew Sankner – are new to the roster after both Carter McPhail and Cooper Lukenda moved on.

Szary played for the New Jersey Hitmen in the National Collegiate Developmental Conference last season. Sankner split time between the Fargo Force in the USHL and Lone Star Brahmas in the NAHL in 2018-19.

“They’re both agile,” Letizia said. “What I like about both of them is they’re super competitive. They battle on every puck. 

“They never give up on any play.”

That approach will be an asset on a mostly youthful squad.

“We didn’t have a ton of guys coming back,” Letizia said. “A lot of new faces. It’s a fun challenge for us as coaches to work with those guys and find chemistry in the group.”

Four-year player Chris Trouba began the season competing in the 2019 Sirius Junior World Cup in Sochi. The Tomahawks captain missed the final two games of Team NAHL’s 3-2 run due to an injury.

“Trouba is back in the country but he’s not back in Johnstown yet,” Letizia said. 

“He’s getting his upper body injury checked out at home in Michigan. 

“He’ll be back for the weekend, but I don’t think he’ll play.”

The Tomahawks are coming off a season that included league highs in wins (47) and points (98) as well as a memorable 17-game winning streak during the regular season and 25 consecutive victories at 1st Summit Arena.

Missing from that team are Carson Briere (89 points), Samuel Solensky (86), Cameron Hebert (78) and Oliver Benwell (70), who combined to score 323 points last season, and McPhail (29 wins) and Lukenda (15), who won 44 games between them.

Still, the 2018-19 team set a foundation for this group to follow.

The Tomahawks will open the regular season on Sept. 13 in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton against the Knights. The home opener will be Sept. 27 against the New Jersey Titans.

“We have guys who really pursue the puck hard,” Letizia said. “They’re hungry for the puck. We have good mobile defensemen. Nobody is slow. The guys are hungry.

“I’m excited to see them play against another team and coach them.”

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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