For the first time in franchise history, the Black Bears played in front of their home fans at The Den in Piney Orchard. While it was a typical tight affair with the Johnstown Tomahawks, the Black Bears won on Wednesday, but couldn’t close it out Thursday– forcing into a winner-takes-all game on Saturday night in Johnstown.
To start off their home side of the playoff series, the Black Bears got off to a quick start. Two chances early by Tanner Rowe and Reid Leibold, showing off their speed to get around the Johnstown defense, but couldn’t cash in on those attempts. Johnstown struck for the first two goals, one at the halfway mark of the first period and then on the power play just past halfway in the second.
Maryland struck back, as Hunter McCoy rifled one home from the top of the circles late in the frame to start the comeback for Maryland. It took only 70 seconds in the third for the Black Bears to tie it up on a Josh Nixon goal from a rebound on the side of the net, then with 3:07 remaining, Brad McNeil put one top shelf for the eventual game winner and capping the three unanswered goals for Maryland.
Thursday’s game had another quick feel for Maryland, despite not being able to score. However, discipline and maybe a little over-excitement got to the Black Bears with two consecutive too-many-men penalties, but luckily– they wee able to hold off the Johnstown power play in those instances. After a scoreless first, Johnstown got a goal quick off the rebound under 90 seconds into the second, while they plugged away at the net for their second goal near the midway point to make it 2-0 by the end of the second frame.
Maryland looked for the comeback once again, as Nixon again lit the lamp on the power play with a shot through traffic from the point. Maryland looked for the equalizer, but couldn’t get the bounces they needed before Johnstown regained their two-goal lead. With the goalie pulled, Dylan Finlay scored with a minute remaining to give the Black Bears some life– but try as they might; Johnstown put it into the empty net with a second left and the series is tied with the last game coming on Saturday.
It’s hard to say that the Black Bears got off to slow starts. In both games, they had plenty of early chances. They used their speed to get to the outside and be able to cut the corner and head to the net, but the biggest thing was the inability to get a lot of traffic in front of Sam Evola. Game Four also had Johnstown up heavy on the shot-counter with 49 shots to Maryland’s 28. Johnstown adjust quickly from Game Three to get into passing lanes and take away a lot of time and space for the Black Bears anywhere on the ice.
For the Black Bears to take Saturday’s game, they’ll need to cash in on those chances early; not unlike how they managed to get to a quick lead in Game Two. There’s no need to complicate the game plan when you know what will work against this team. The issue is being able to get out in front and play with the lead rather than having to rely on last-chance heroics all the time. Also, limiting the amount of puck-handling in the defensive zone would help, as the Black Bears had issues with getting it out of their zone, leading to some prime chances by Johnstown.
The stage is set for what will be a conclusion to a heck of a series not only in the playoffs, but for the entire season between these two teams. There shouldn’t be an expectation of less between them on Saturday, as the winner will move onto the East Division Finals.