Matt Meier, Alex Okicki and the Johnstown Tomahawks put a New Year’s Eve celebration into motion a few hours early on Tuesday night.
Meier scored two goals and collected three points, and goaltender Okicki stopped 28 of 29 Michigan Warriors’ shots as the Tomahawks won 4-1 in the NAHL.
The Hawks upheld a Johnstown hockey tradition started by the former ECHL Chiefs, playing a solid game in front of a sellout crowd at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
“It’s awesome,” Meier said of the atmosphere. “Having almost every seat filled is a great feeling. It’s truly awesome.”
The crowd of 3,759 was the Tomahawks’ second straight New Year’s Eve sellout and bettered last season’s holiday attendance of 3,725.
In two New Year’s Eve games, the Tomahawks attracted 7,484 fans.
“The fans really helped a lot,” said Okicki, who made 28 saves and improved his record to 14-7-0-1. “This is probably the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of in my hockey career. It was an awesome experience. The noise really gets you going and motivates you.
“The guys kept the shots outside and made it easy for me.”
The Tomahawks are 1-0-0-1 in New Year’s Eve games after falling in an overtime shootout last season.
The win also was the first New Year’s Eve victory in franchise history. The former Alaska Avalanche went 0-3 on New Year’s Eve before relocating to Johnstown from Palmer, Alaska.
Of more significance, the second-place Tomahawks won their 20th game and with 42 points kept pace with North Division-leading Port Huron, a 4-2 winner over Springfield on Tuesday. The Fighting Falcons have 45 points, with Johnstown at 42 and third-place Michigan at 38.
“This win was very big,” Meier said. “(Monday) we got two points and they got one (in Johnstown’s 3-2 shootout win over the Warriors). This time we got two points and they had none. That’s important.”
On Tuesday, Johnstown forward Jordan Watt converted on a power play to give the Tomahawks a 1-0 lead 16:35 into the first. Dakoda Menslage had an assist.
Tomahawks goaltender Okicki preserved the advantage with a save of Tyler Groat’s open shot from the low slot with 2:09 left in the opening period.
“We just focused in on what we had to do – hard work and big hits and shooting the puck,” Meier said.
On Monday, Johnstown allowed a pair of goals in the closing minute of regulation during a dramatic shootout win over Michigan. A night later, the Tomahawks capitalized on their own late opportunity in the second period.
Shane Bednard played the puck behind the Michigan cage, and Meier slid the disc from behind the goal line, off the net and to Joe Drabin who was skating between the circles.
“I got a beautiful pass from Drabin. I had a shot and missed the net. I just got it and threw it in front, and Drabin finished it,” Meier said.
Drabin snapped a shot past goalie Dillon Kelley with 16 seconds remaining in the second period to give Johnstown a two-goal lead.
Michigan’s Jon Farkas scored 1:47 into the final period to make it 2-1.
The Tomahawks’ Meier netted his 10th of the season with assists to Josh Bowes and Tyler Basham at 13:47 to reestablish the two-goal lead.
Okicki made a nice pad save on Zack Szajner’s shot in tight with 2:34 left, and Meier added an insurance goal 16 seconds later.
Meier had a breakaway, but a Michigan defender used his body to disrupt the shot. Meier stuck with it and slipped the puck behind Kelley from the right post.
“We kept going,” Okicki said. “We kept pressuring down low. They couldn’t get the puck out for a long time. The guys did a great job of keeping it low, especially at the end of the game. That really kills their confidence.”
Notes: The Tomahawks’ two-game set at the War Memorial ended, and Johnstown heads to the road again for three games at Soo on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Hawks had been away from the War Memorial for 37 days and now will hit the road for seven games until a Jan. 24 home date against Michigan. … Last season, Kalamazoo edged Johnstown 3-2 in an overtime shootout in the New Year’s Eve game. … Watt is the only current Johnstown player who skated in the 2012 New Year’s Eve game for the home team and again this year. Watt had two assists in the 2012 game. … Two of Tuesday’s three officials also worked the 2012 New Year’s Eve game; referee Jonathon Sitarski and lineseman Garrett Gaydosh. … The New Year’s Eve game was the first Tuesday night contest in Tomahawks’ history. … The Tomahawks are 6-2 in shootout games. … Drabin has two goals and six points in six games against the Warriors this season.