Stephen Kyrkostas

The Johnstown Tomahawks' Stephen Kyrkostas (center) goes airborne over Maryland Black Bears goaltender Michael Morelli to score the game-winning goal in a shootout on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial. 

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The new look and mostly youthful 2021-22 Johnstown Tomahawks formally introduced themselves to a crowd of 2,012 fans at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial on Saturday night.

The 10th home opener in the North American Hockey League franchise’s history turned out to be quite a welcome party after a hard-fought 4-3 shootout victory over the rival Maryland Black Bears.

Certainly, forward Stephen Kyrkostas made a lasting impression on those fans who spent most of the final minutes chanting in support of the home team during a tense penalty-kill situation.

“Most of us are new,” Kyrkostas said. “It’s going to take us a little while to jell together. We’ve been on the road a long time too, so now coming back, having good weeks of practice and everyone continues to get better and better. Little by little, we’re starting to build something.”

Kyrkostas had two goals in regulation, including the game-tying tally with 2:40 remaining. Then, the Selden, New York, native clinched the shootout by skating from the right wing, holding the puck a few extra moments and then slipping it past Black Bears goalie Michael Morelli.

Johnstown made both its shootout attempts, with Zachary Murray scoring in the first round. Second-year goaltender Sam Evola stopped both Maryland shootout attempts and had 29 saves overall as the Tomahawks improved to 3-4.

“Home-opening wins don’t come often around here. I give our guys a lot of credit to stay with that one,” said eighth-year Tomahawks head coach Mike Letizia, who has been part of all 10 openers including two years as an assistant. “We kept battling. Every time we’d tie it, we’d give up a lucky break and it would find a way to go in.

“It was nice to see us get that tying goal by Stevie. Then we get a big penalty kill at the end of the game.”

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The Tomahawks are 2-5-3 all-time in home openers at the War Memorial since the team arrived in 2012-13. The only other home-opening victory was in 2019.

“For these guys, whether you’re young or old, only a few of them played in this building before,” Letizia said. “You’re nervous. You could see it in the first period.

“Maryland is a good team,” added Letizia, referring to a Black Bears team that upset the East Division champion Tomahawks in the first round of the playoffs in May. “As we grow, anytime you come up with a big win like that, a character-builder, when you come back and tie it, it’s huge.”

Only four seconds into the game, Johnstown’s T.J. Koufis and Maryland’s Laker Aldridge dropped the gloves and fought. Aldridge, who briefly was announced as a Tomahawks’ acquisition in a trade last week but later landed with the Black Bears, briefly had the upper hand, but Koufis worked his way free and into a favorable position before the officials stopped the clash with players from each team tapping their sticks on the ice.

The Black Bears struck in the more conventional manner at 3:14 as Aden Bruich used a second and third effort to put in the puck after Johnstown goaltender Sam Evola initially stopped two close-range opportunities.

Tomahawks captain Holt Oliphant tied the score on a power play with assists by Jake Black and Jacob Badal at 12:29.

But Maryland regained the advantage with its own power-play tally just over four minutes later by Ryan Bottrill, with an assist to Aldridge.

The Tomahawks evened matters 9:05 into the second. Kyrkostas scored with assists to Koufis and Johnny Ulicny.

Again, the division-leading Black Bears (5-3-2) answered quickly via Branden Piku’s fourth goal of the season at 11:03. Maryland led 3-2 through two periods.

Kyrkostas tied the game with only 2:40 remaining in regulation.

“We were in our D zone and got a good rebound in the neutral zone,” Kyrkostas said. “(Jake) Black picked it up. I got some speed along the way. A perfect flip, coming in on a breakaway. Luckily, I slid it five-hole. All good.”

But the drama wasn’t over for the ’Hawks. Maryland had a late power play with 2:17 left and the Black Bears were in the offensive zone throughout the man advantage, peppering Evola with shots.

The crowd raised the intensity level with “Let’s go ‘Hawks” chants that got louder with each Black Bears cycle through the zone.

“We’ve been away for a long time and were looking forward to the home fans,” Kyrkostas said. “It was a great atmosphere. We’re thrilled we could kill that off in the last minute. The fans give us a lot of momentum to kill it off (and head to overtime).”

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.

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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