Before the puck dropped Sunday afternoon, the Olympia ice resurfacer crashed into the boards and a linesman lost his balance on his way to the ice at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
For a city with as many heartbreaking hockey postseason memories as Johnstown, those weren’t good signs. Especially since the Tomahawks faced a season-making or season-ending game against Port Huron in the NAHL North Division play-in series.
Then, for two-and-a-half periods, the Tomahawks played as if the ghosts of all those too-tough-to-revisit playoff loses by the Chiefs and Jets that echo inside the barn had been exorcised.
Maybe it helped there wasn’t a sellout crowd. A total of 2,011 watched as Johnstown outskated, outhustled, outshot and played a more physical brand of hockey than its opponent. Those who followed the team during its better-than-expected debut season in Flood City are well aware that a capacity crowd equals a Tomahawks loss. There were seven sellouts for the franchise that ranked fifth in the league in average attendance. Johnstown lost all seven.
As for the bounces that eluded the Tomahawks in some of the team’s most anticipated games, well, they were there, too. The right bounce led to Brandon Reinholz’s game-opening goal – the first goal scored in the first period of a defensively minded three-game series. A good bounce off the pads of Port Huron goalie Max Milosek from an Andrew McDonald shot found the stick of Mitch Kontny, who buried the rebound for an imposing 3-1 lead midway through the third period.
All signs pointed toward the Tomahawks heading to Sault Ste. Marie for the North Division semifinals.
Even Port Huron General Manager and coach Michael Gershon, who knows a thing or two about hockey in Johnstown, thought his Fighting Falcons would be facing one long bus ride back to Michigan.
Instead, they left with an improbable 4-3 overtime victory that left even the most hardened Johnstown hockey fan wondering what happened.
“I really thought the hockey gods didn’t want us to win this,” said Gershon, who played for the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers during the 2010-11 season. The Nailers played 10 games at Cambria County War Memorial in each of the previous two hockey seasons before the Tomahawks’ relocated from Palmer, Alaska.
“The support system they have here is fantastic and it’s easy to get up in front of 2,500 fans. This is a great town for hockey,” Gershon added. “I played for Wheeling and I know Johnstown was starved for their own team for two years.”
That starving turned to stunned silence when Port Huron’s Brett D’Andrea tied the game at 3-all with 35 seconds remaining and the Fighting Falcons’ goalie pulled. The silence turned to disbelief when Ian Miller’s wraparound beat Tomahawks’ goalie Chris Truehl 3:28 into overtime.
A new franchise. A new season. The same old playoff luck for Johnstown.
But there’s the same old resolve, too.
“Now we know what this league is about,” Tomahawks general manager Rick Boyd said. “It was a great year for the first one. We’re good. We’re in good shape to build off what we’ve done.”
That doesn’t take the sting off this loss, which caps a season that brought huge public relations hits like the Hanson Brothers reunion and the Stanley Cup appearance plus a fast-paced brand of hockey.
“The team has been fantastic. The city has been fantastic,” coach Jason Spence said. “Our whole organization, we’re really proud of the players and what they’ve done. … We brought some guys from Alaska and brought some guys in along the way, not just to help us on the ice, but guys we thought would be Johnstown people.”
Mike Kovak is sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat.