The Johnstown Tomahawks open the Robertson Cup playoffs tonight at Port Huron hoping to reclaim the form that enabled the second-year team to move near the top of the NAHL North Division a mere six weeks ago.
Standing in the way of fourth-seeded Johnstown is No. 1 Port Huron, a team that planted itself firmly atop the division and never relented. Faceoff in Game 1 of the best-of-5 series is at 7 p.m. at McMorran Place Sports and Entertainment Center.
“We’re looking to play the game that Johnstown has to play,” said Tomahawks coach Jason Spence, whose team won twice in its final 12 regular-season games. “We’ve got to be first on pucks. We’ve got to play the physical game. We’ve got to use our speed and not give them a chance.”
“It’s got to be a no hesitation thing. We’ve played 60 games this season. We know what we have to do. We’ve just got to do it and we’ve got to want it more than the other team. I think the boys are ready.”
The Tomahawks were in a tie for second place with the Michigan Warriors with 56 points on Feb. 22.
Since then, Johnstown had a seven-game losing streak and slipped to fourth place, at one point facing possible elimination as both fifth-place Springfield and last-place Soo closed the gap. But two critical home wins over Soo helped the Tomahawks solidify their spot.
Johnstown dropped its final three games, but clinched a playoff spot when Springfield lost to Soo last Friday.
Spence said Tomahawks’ veteran 21-win goaltender Alex Okicki has practiced with the team after missing the final three games with an ankle injury. The coach said Okicki’s status will be a game-day decision.
“Alex is practicing,” Spence said. “I’m just not sure which goalie is going to start yet.”
Rookie Brett Young still is looking for his first win with the Tomahawks. He is 0-5-1 with a 4.62 goals against average and .867 save percentage.
“Young has progressed unbelievably. He’s really doing a good job,” Spence said. “The guys have confidence in him. He takes away the bottom of the net very well. He’s got a lot of length and he sews up a lot of the net. He’s 6-foot-4. He’s a big kid and he works really hard.”
Port Huron has a diverse offensive attack with Logan Lambdin (19 goals) and Zach Badalamenti (13 goals) each scoring 38 points, and Vito Alvia scoring 33 points (13 goals). Alex Archibald has a plus-22 rating with 28 points.
“Port Huron is very opportunistic. You can’t give them opportunities,” Spence said. “You have to take them away. You have to force them. In their rink you have to be sure you get to the opportunities before they do.”
The Tomahawks counter with defenseman Mitch Hall (6-37-43, plus-15) and Matt Meier (21-22-43, plus-16) each scoring 43 points. Forward Brandon Reinholz has 39 points (18 goals) and 98 penalty minutes. Jordan Watt has 22 goals and 34 points.
The Hawks will try to crack Port Huron’s goaltender tandem of Max Milosek (18-10-7, 2.38, .922) and Alex Blankenburg (17-5-3, 2.12, .931).
“Port Huron’s goaltenders are both veterans,” Spence said. “They challenge. The come out. They’re really good at making the first save.
“They’re competitors. We’ve got to make sure we get traffic and we’ve got to beat them. We can’t just count on beating them with the first shot. We’ve got to have second and third shots as well.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.