An opening day 9-2 loss to the Chugiak Mustangs sent the Soldotna Stars plummeting out of contention at the Class 4A state hockey tournament at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
Chugiak’s trio of junior forwards — Zach Krajnik, John Hammer and Andrew Beckett — all notched two goals apiece to lead the Mustangs to the victory. The win sent Chugiak to a Friday semifinal matchup with crosstown rival Eagle River, an upset winner over West Valley.
Soldotna was relegated to the consolation side of the state bracket, where one loss will end a season. The Stars will face West Valley today at noon.
“We obviously want to make it to Saturday,” said SoHi head coach Derek Urban. “It’ll be the last game for potentially two of our (senior) players, so that’ll be enough motivation.”
Looking to break the first-round curse that had left out SoHi and Kenai a combined 16 times in the last 20 years, the Stars were already looking at a tough road ahead.
However, outside circumstances hit Soldotna at precisely the wrong time of the season.
The Stars had to play without two of their top four offensive players due to different circumstances. Cameron Knowlton was serving a one-game suspension that was handed down by the Alaska Schools Activities Association for an ejection late in last Saturday’s North Star Conference title game against Colony. Knowlton led Soldotna in the regular season with 36 points (20 goals, 16 assists), well ahead of Jace Urban’s second-best tally of 22 points.
Urban said the SoHi coaching staff had talked to the referees Saturday night in an attempt to reinstate Knowlton in Thursday’s matchup against the Mustangs. He then sent an appeal to ASAA, but it was denied.
Monday came with worse news. Three additional players were not allowed to compete due to grade checks that conflicted with ASAA’s academic policy.
It left the Stars with a reduced supply of offensive firepower against the newly crowned Cook Inlet Conference champions.
“It put the kids in a tough spot, and they had to go out there and perform,” Urban said. “We were definitely short-handed.”
Krajnik struck just 39 ticks into Thursday’s game to put Chugiak on the board first over Soldotna, then Kaden Yockey added to the lead with a quick top shelf attack at the 2:09 mark.
Krajnik assisted on a goal by John Hammer to make it 3-0 before 5 1-2 minutes were up. Hammer and Krajnik notched four assists each, putting both of their point totals at six each.
“I thought we came out a bit shaky in the first period,” Urban said. “But I thought as the game went on, we started playing better and moving the puck.”
Krajnik and Hammer scored once more each to balloon the lead to 5-0 at the end of the first period.
Soldotna was charged with a penalty just 36 seconds from the end of the opening period, but it didn’t bite the Stars until the second stanza. Just 43 seconds into the middle period, Zach Plucinski caught the puck in the left faceoff circle and dodged a defender to score the power-play goal and put Chugiak up 6-0. It ultimately became the only goal of the period.
Chugiak outshot SoHi 24-11 after two periods. Urban said with the four missing players, SoHi would have given Chugiak a much stiffer challenge.
“I can’t say if we had everyone onboard, we would’ve won for sure,” Urban said. “But it definitely would’ve been closer.”
Junior forward Corey Hanson scored a pair of third-period goals, which was enough to award him player of the game for Soldotna. On both goals, senior Emily Werner notched both assists, the first points of her senior season.
Urban said the late scoring should help give the Stars a boost of confidence heading into Friday’s game against West Valley, and with Knowlton back in the mix, SoHi will be looking better.
“Hopefully we build off that and carry what little momentum we have from that,” Urban said.
The day’s other games featured a pair of blowouts and one close upset. No. 4 CIC team Eagle River toppled No. 1 MAC school West Valley 2-1, while Dimond routed Juneau 9-1 and West Anchorage defeated Colony 4-0.
Mustangs 9, Stars 2
Chugiak 5 1 3 —9
Soldotna 0 0 2 —2
1st period — 1. Chugiak, Krajnik (unassisted), :39; 2. Chugiak, Yockey (Krajnik, Hammer), 2:09; 3. Chugiak, Hammer (Krajnik), 5:26; 4. Chugiak, Krajnik (unassisted), sh, 9:03; 5. Chugiak, Hammer (Beckett, Krajnik), 11:35. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00; Chugiak 1 for 2:00.
2nd period — 6. Chugiak, Plucinski (Krajnik, Hammer), pp, :43. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00; Chugiak 1 for 2:00.
3rd period — 7. Chugiak, Beckett (Hammer, Bear), 4:20; 8. Chugiak, Beckett (Hammer), 6:58; 9. Soldotna, Hanson (Werner, B. Urban), 7:18; 10. Soldotna, Hanson (Werner), 12:11; 11. Chugiak, Cottle (unassisted), 14:00. Penalties — Soldotna 2 for 7:00.
Shots on goal — Soldotna 7-4-3—14; Chugiak 8-10-12—30.