For much of Sunday afternoon’s NAHL game, the Johnstown Tomahawks occupied two benches at Cambria County War Memorial.
Of course, the Hawks had plenty of space on the home bench for a game against the Port Huron Fighting Falcons.
That’s to be expected.
The location that created problems for coach Jason Spence and his players was directly across the ice – the penalty box.
The Tomahawks were whistled for 58 penalty minutes.
Port Huron converted 4 of 12 power-play opportunities and even tallied a short-handed goal as the Tomahawks fell 5-1 in front of 2,023 fans.
“When you’re in the box like that, it really kills the tempo of the game,” said Spence, whose team opened 0-2 with both losses to the Falcons. “There was a lot of frustration. It led to some of those penalties.
“You can’t blame a game like that solely on the referee, but I was upset with the officiating.”
The Tomahawks had only one power-play opportunity through 40 minutes and finished 0 for 4 overall with the man-advantage.
Fighting Falcons coach Michael Gershon saw significant improvement in Port Huron’s special teams play. The production helped the Falcons outscore the Tomahawks by a cumulative 8-2 count this weekend.
“We went 0-for-7 (Saturday) but we had some really good (power-play) opportunities,” Gershon said. “(Sunday) the puck just bounced right for us and we capitalized on the opportunities. That changed the game and changed the momentum.”
Alex Archibald converted on the power play 6:14 into the game against netminder Alex Okicki, who made 29 saves on 34 shots.
Johnstown tied the game after a great effort by Collin Finkhouse.
The first-year Tomahawk skated hard to the net, and his momentum forced Port Huron goalie Max Milosek out of position on the near side and slightly behind the net.
Finkhouse passed out to Shane Cuckovich at the left point, then positioned himself in front. Finkhouse tipped in Cuckovich’s shot 4:28 into the second period.
“We got a spark of energy,” Spence said. “We used it but we couldn’t penetrate and get through the net.”
Milosek had 22 saves Sunday and 45 stops over two games.
“Max is one of the top goalies in the league,” Gershon said. “He was fantastic (Saturday) and we gave him a little more help this time.”
Jonathan Kopacka scored with only 3 seconds remaining on a 5-minute major power play at 8:01 of the second.
Nick LeSage made it 3-1 with a power-play goal at 15:52 of the second.
“I think in the first two periods they had only two 5-on-5 shots each period,” Spence said of the power-play disparity. “It wears you down. A lot of our defensemen were getting penalties. At one time we only had three defensemen playing and three in the box. It’s not real easy to deal with that.”
Spence said the Tomahawks must address the issue and become more disciplined as the team prepares for the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., this week. The Hawks will play four games in as many days, beginning Wednesday against defending Robertson Cup champion Amarillo.
The Tomahawks will then play Topeka, Aberdeen and Bismark in the Showcase. Last year Johnstown went 1-2-1 at the event.
“We have to learn from this game and then go from there,” Spence said. “Once we learn from it, we have to forget it.
“I want everyone to know that whether the guys were nervous or whatever it was, they have a lot more (talent) than what they showed this weekend. Some haven’t played on this big of a stage before.”
Gershon was ecstatic with his team’s effort in an atmosphere that included an elaborate opening night celebration with fireworks, flaming blue lines and Stanley Cup winner Bill Guerin dropping the ceremonial first puck.
Port Huron coped well with Saturday’s 41-minute delay due to the heavy smoke stemming from the fireworks.
“It’s definitely not an easy place to play,” Gershon said. “They do a good job here, and people pack the place and are very vocal. For us to come in and win the first two games of the year in a tough market, it’s a good feeling.”