The 2018-19 NAHL season kicked off for the Knights on Friday afternoon, as the team welcomed the Johnstown Tomahawks to the Revolution Ice Centre. Game one of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s East Division title defense began with the Tomahawks jumping out to a fast start, as their high-paced forecheck quickly established a physical presence.
Knights 2018 first round pick Zach Stejskal was tested early and often, but responded with a flurry of impressive saves, using his 6-5 frame to dismiss Johnstown’s initial chances.
Following the expiration of the game’s first penalty just minutes into the first, Jeffrey Bertrand hopped out of the box and into an interception as the Nittany Lion commit plucked an exit pass off the Johnstown blue line before starting in on Tomahawks goalie Kade Phipps. Alone in front, Bertrand ripped a shot through to give the Knights their first goal and lead of the season (unassisted).
Stejskal and the Knights penalty kill would withstand Johnstown’s steady barrage through the remainder of the period, leaving the ice with a 1-0 lead.
The second period followed a similar pattern; Johnstown controlling the pace, while Stejskal and the defense stood tall. A disallowed goal in the period only motivated Johnstown as their forecheck redoubled their efforts to solve Stejskal.
The Tomahawks would finally break through just shy of 37 minutes of being held off the board. After Stejskal fought through a pair of screens, he lost his balance trying to make a save on a blocked shot from Anthony Mastromonica. A falling Mitchell Hale found and poked the loose puck into the open net for the game-tying goal. Chris Trouba tallied the secondary assist on the score.
Heading into the third, penalties continued to sap any rhythm from the Knights forecheck, with Johnstown continuing to win the 200-foot battle.
Finally, the Knights found their stride four minutes into the third period. In transition, Anthony Starzi found Jake Fuss streaking through the Johnstown slot on an odd-man rush. Alone in front, Fuss waited for Phipps to commit to moving forward, before handing a quick pass off to Tyler Nielsen. Nielsen buried the open-net goal to complete the Knights EHL-alumni trifecta, re-establishing the one-goal lead.
The lead held through more Johnstown pressure, as the Knights protected their advantage well into the second half of the period. One Tomahawks near miss came when Chad Merrell rang a shot off the crossbar, missing the equalizer by mere millimeters. Not to be deterred, Merrell tried going high again at the 13:21 mark and was rewarded, as his perfectly placed snipe beat Stejskal to again even the score (Colin Price, Alex Wilkins).
Another Knights penalty would prove costly in the game’s final four minutes. After going a perfect four of four on the kill through 56 minutes of play, the Knights kill team was finally bested for the Tomahawks first lead. Off of a Hunter Toale pass, Samuel Solensky found himself parked in the middle of the slot with the puck. Waiting until Stejskal moved to answer the challenge, Solensky slid a perfect backdoor pass to a waiting Cameron Hebert, who ripped the puck home for the Tomahawks first lead with just under four to play.
The Knights attempted rally saw a few chances and an extended time in the attacking end after Stejskal was pulled for the extra attacker, but Johnstown held on to secure the 3-2 win.
In the loss, Zach Stejskal was excellent, stopping 51 of 54 shots on goal. On the opposite end, Kade Phipps was steady in the win, making 16 saves for Johnstown on his way to his first victory of the 18-19 season.
The pair of teams will rematch today at 3:30 pm EDT. The game will be broadcast on www.hockeytv.com. Follow Knights Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for in-game updates!