Alex Okicki faced his share of Johnstown Tomahawks shots on goal last North American Hockey League season.
Okicki likes defending the Tomahawks’ net much better.
“They were always a hard-working team, and they outworked the other team,” said Okicki, a third-year NAHL goaltender recalling his experience facing the Tomahawks, his current team, when he played for the former Kalamazoo Junior K-Wings franchise. “On top of them always running and gunning and trying to play the body on us all the time, the fans, and how loud it was at the War Memorial, it was frustrating. Now playing here, it’s a lot nicer. It’s a lot easier to play here.”
The Tomahawks feel a lot better having Okicki on their side.
The 20-year-old from Concord, Ohio, had three solid performances and earned two wins as the Tomahawks went 2-1-0 during a three-game series at Soo last weekend. The NAHL named Okicki the North Division Star of the Week after he stopped all seven shootout attempts he faced in last Saturday’s 3-2 win and followed up with a 28-save shutout in a 2-0 victory on Sunday against the Eagles.
“The first game we started off a little slow and things weren’t clicking too much,” Okicki said of the lone loss of the series. “We came back strong the next day. We battled back and tied it up in the third period. We had the shootout and went 1 for 7, and they were 0 for 7. I wanted to try to give my teammates a chance.
“Sunday we came out really strong. My teammates made it pretty easy for me that game, keeping shots outside and blocking shots,” he said. “I couldn’t have had the shutout without the help of my teammates. They played incredible that night.”
Okicki also entered late in the first period of last Friday’s 5-2 loss at Soo, stopping 28 of 30 shots.
“Alex is a competitor. The more work he gets, the better he plays,” said Tomahawks coach Jason Spence, whose 4-4-1 team will play the Springfield Jr. Blues at 7 tonight and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Cambria County War Memorial Arena. “He is a leader, not just among the team, but among our goalies. He’s a veteran in the league. He’s played here for three years. He lets the other guys know what’s to come.”
Okicki is 2-2-0 with a 2.30 goals against average and .922 save percentage.
Last season he had 18 wins, a 2.74 GAA and .918 save percentage for Kalamazoo. In two-plus seasons, he has 35 NAHL regular-season wins.
Still, Okicki had a difficult time when facing the Tomahawks during Johnstown’s inaugural NAHL season in 2012-13. His play often was spectacular, but wins were elusive.
The 6-foot-1, 168-pound netminder made a series of highlight reel stops and turned away a couple point blank shots only to see Johnstown beat the K-Wings 2-1 in a March shootout.
Cody Gylling’s penalty shot goal in the waning seconds provided the winner against Okicki on Dec. 30 at the War Memorial. He also was part of Kalamazoo losses of 4-1 in November and 6-2 in October against the Hawks.
Perhaps that’s why he appreciates the opportunity to share goaltending duties with prospect Colin DeAugustine in Johnstown.
“It’s a lot different than Kalamazoo. We averaged 200 fans a game and I went to us averaging 3,000 in Johnstown,” Okicki said. “The whole city supports us. That’s nice. Coach works with guys. We try to get everyone better as a group. I love playing in Johnstown.”
When asked if Okicki’s first wins as a Tomahawk last weekend represented a turning point, Spence downplayed that suggestion.
“Somebody like him doesn’t need one game to say, ‘Hey, I’m on track,’ ” Spence said. “He doesn’t need something to get him started. He’s already there.
“He’s been there and he’s done that. He’s played in the league. He’s suffered losses. He’s had big wins. He had a great record last year. He didn’t have the best record against us. We were fortunate enough to match up really well against Kalamazoo last year, but he was the one that was able to keep Kalamazoo in all the games we played.”