Shane Cuckovich finally returned to the Johnstown Tomahawks lineup, then he and his teammates had a weekend off.
Cuckovich had been away from the ice for 26 days when he rejoined the Hawks for a two-game set at first-place Port Huron on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. The 19-year-old defenseman helped Johnstown earn three of a possible four points. But another quirk in an already quirky schedule had the third-place Tomahawks idle last weekend.
“It was pretty tough having to sit in the stands and not being able to go on the trips with the guys,” said Cuckovich of his idle time that resulted from a concussion suffered Jan. 5 at Soo. “I had to stay home while they were away (on road trips), but it was definitely needed. I’m just happy to be back with the guys and playing again and working out and being healthy.”
Tomahawks coach Jason Spence is happy, too.
The Tomahawks spent much of January with only four healthy defenseman on the roster.
Cuckovich’s presence and the expected return of defenseman Logan Hudson for tonight’s home game against the surging Michigan Warriors is cause for a minor celebration at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
“It’s big. We were playing with four defensemen,” Spence said on Thursday. “Sometimes we had five. It’s just been really tough.”
Having a four- or five-man rotation means more ice time and less recovery time for the blueline corps.
“They’ve been playing well but you always have that concern that you have to conserve energy,” Spence said. “I’ve got them right back out there the next shift. Now they can play their game and go hard. They’re in good shape and they can play that way but it’s nice to have six players on defense.”
Cuckovich and Hudson join defensemen Mitch Hall, Cody Bentzel, Dakoda Menslage and Brady Bender.
“We’re all really a fun group of guys who always are working hard,” said Cuckovich, a 6-foot-1, 195-pounder with three goals, six points and plus-5 in 33 games. “That makes us a real solid group of defensemen.”
Cuckovich missed being a part of the gang on the ice, but knew better than to gamble with his health.
“I just did everything the doctor said,” Cuckovich said. “It’s not something I want to mess with. I’ve had concussion problems in the past. I wanted to be really cautious about it.”
He didn’t score a point at Port Huron, but was part of a 3-2 overtime loss and 4-2 win over the Fighting Falcons.
“Everything felt great,” Cuckovich said. “The first game, I was just getting my bearings back. The second game I felt I was back to where I needed to be. I still have some room to improve.”
The Tomahawks (23-19-3, 49 points) trail second-place Michigan (23-12-8, 54) by five points in the North Division. Port Huron still leads with 56 points.
Johnstown and Michigan have met in the Tomahawks four previous home games during a stretch that has Spence’s team away from home for much of a three-month span.
Coach Moe Mantha’s Warriors have moved from a middle-of-the-pack team to a top contender during that same stretch.
“They’re consistent,” Spence said. “They pressure. Their power play has been really clicking as of late. We’ve got to make sure we play smart. We’ve got to play as hard as we always do and get after it.”
Cuckovich said discipline will be a key factor.
“Michigan’s toughness is what makes them tough to play against,” he said. “They’re real physical and they can easily drag you into stupid penalties or penalties you don’t want to take. That’s one of the things that’s killed us when we played them. We have to play our own game instead of playing their game.”
The Tomahawks should be ready to play. This will be their first game in nearly two weeks.
“We had the whole weekend off last weekend,” Spence said. “We were able to practice a bunch of things. We were able to heal up. We have all of our defensemen back healthy. It’s been a good week of preparation.”
The Tomahawks on the ice tonight and Saturday will be the same group Spence intends to lead into the NAHL postseason should Johnstown maintain its playoff position.
“The roster has been frozen,” Spence said of the Feb. 10 deadline. “We’ll have the same roster until the end of the year.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.