JOHNSTOWN, Pennsylvania – Johnstown Tomahawks captain Holt Oliphant knew he made a reckless decision in the final minutes of overtime Friday night at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial.
So when Tomahawks goaltender Matthew O’Donnell fended off a Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks shot on a 2-on-1 run, Oliphant wasn’t about to waste a chance.
The Air Force Academy rookie picked up the puck along the right wing boards, skated into the neutral zone and saw he had an open path to the net.
Oliphant pushed the puck past Danbury goaltender Adam Johnson with 1:43 left in overtime, giving the Tomahawks a 3-2 win that officially secured a playoff berth for coach Mike’s team Letizia.
“First off, great save from O’Donnell on that 2-on-1 (rush),” Oliphant said. “He kind of bailed me out. I had some kind of dodgy pinch on the other end that gave them that 2-on-1. ‘Donnie’ made a huge save for us.
“I ended up getting a breakaway. The puck was rolling. I tried to fix it. I just put a shot on net and it turned out he went in.
Once the goal lamp came on and the siren sounded, Oliphant and his teammates celebrated in front of a crowd of 2,112.
“It’s definitely exciting. You want to control your own destiny,” said Oliphant, who scored his 17th and 18th goals in the win.
“It’s been a season of ups and downs. Obviously, we’re thrilled to win the playoffs.
“Since we lost Game 5 last year, our goal was to get back into the playoffs.”
The third-placed Tomahawks (33-20-6) have 72 points and will conclude the regular season against Danbury (12-41-6) at 7 p.m. Saturday. A win would put Johnstown in second place.
Jamestown (35-22-3) finished its season with 73 points after losing to Maryland on Friday, but the Rebels still hold second place in the East Division. The Black Bears (29-19-12) finished with 70 points, currently fourth.
The fifth-placed Northeast Generals (33-24-1) entered the weekend with an outside shot to advance to the playoffs and won on Friday. Northeast has 67 points with two games to go and a chance to pass Maryland.
“The current situation in our division is pretty crazy. It’s been like this for a few months,” said Letizia of Johnstown. “It’s been ‘playoff hockey’ for a while. We had the ability to start the weekend (to clinch a playoff spot) and we did what we had to do.
“Today wasn’t our best game, far from it. At this time of year, you have to find a way.
The Jr. Hat Tricks didn’t play like a last-place team in the first period. Danbury took a 2-0 lead after goals from Pete Lajoy at 7:45 and Owen Simmons at 17:52.
The teams had two fights in the first period and a multiplayer scrimmage in the second that resulted in three roughing penalties.
“I thought when guys defended themselves, it was huge,” Letizia said. “It gave us some life before the second.”
Danbury’s Robert Hyde and Johnstown’s Frank Jenkins fought at 10:48, and Jr. Hat Tricks’ Matt Danziger and Oliphant dropped the gloves at 12:20 of the former.
Johnstown bounced back with a solid second period, scoring Jacob Badal’s only goal at 4:53 to make it 2-1.
Jake Black and Braedon Ford had assists.
The ‘Hawks outscored the Jr. Hat Tricks 9-1 in the second.
Oliphant tied the game on the power play at 12:19 of the third period. Black and Zachary Murray, the league’s top scorers, had assists.
“It was a great zone entry,” Oliphant said. “(Murray) made a nice pass to Black. ‘Blackie’ being the goalscorer that he is, I actually expected him to shoot. He ended up making a great pass straight to my tape and I was able to put it home.
O’Donnell made 19 saves to improve to 18-9-6 overall and 11-5-2 since joining the Tomahawks.
Even with the playoff berth assured, there is still work to be done for the Tomahawks.
“We take care of business (Saturday), we will have home ice for the first round,” Letizia said. “That’s our goal. That was our goal before the weekend.
Mike Mastovich is a sports journalist and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.