For veteran members of the Homer High School hockey team, Saturday’s ASAA First National Cup Hockey State Championship game might have caused a case of deja vu, but with a drastically different outcome.
A tight match against the Palmer Moose in the final game of the Division II state hockey tournament heading into overtime is exactly how things played out two years ago — only this time, Homer was the team that came out on top.
The Mariners defended their state championship title from last year with a 3-2 victory over the Moose Saturday at the Curtis. D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla, and in doing so avenged their loss from 2019. The team won the first state championship in program history last year by defeating the Soldotna Stars 4-1.
In 2019, the Moose had snatched the championship title away with a 6-5 overtime victory.
This year, they looked to repeat that victory, coming out strong with two unanswered goals less than two minutes into the first period of the game. Xander Logan netted the first goal unassisted, while Nathan Wheeler scored the second with help from Bryce Armstrong and Matias Broughton.
For first-year varsity head coach Mike Barth, it definitely felt good to watch the team come back from that 2-0 deficit in the first period to win the game.
“It was good to see that the team stuck together and battled through it,” he said.
After those two early shots got by him, Homer goaltender Keegan Strong didn’t allow another goal for the rest of the game, saving a total of 24 out of 26 shots. The Mariners outshot the Moose, with Palmer goaltender Jackson Heard stopping 31 out of 34 total shots.
Homer’s Casey Otis started the Mariners’ recovery during a power play with a second-period goal assisted by Haylee Owen and Bergen Knutson. Matfey Reutov, who was later named player of the game for Homer, scored the game-tying goal about halfway through the third period, with an assist from Karl Wickstrom.
Neither team could sneak another goal in before the end of the game, sending it into overtime. A few minutes into that overtime period, Palmer’s Broughton got sent to the penalty box for hooking, giving the Mariners the advantage they needed for the power-play goal that clinched the game, scored by Hunter Green.
For Green, the win meant more than just a championship title. He told the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman that the game was also for the Homer seniors of 2019, who came so close to a championship but lost to Palmer in the end.
“We got ‘em — we got ‘em back,” Green told the Frontiersman. “That was for Tucker Weston, Lee Lowe, Brenna (McCarron). That was for all of our seniors that we lost that year that never got to win a championship.”
For Palmer, Wheeler was named player of the game, and Jeremy Horacek, Carter Greco and Heard were named to the all-tournament team. For Homer, Strong, Green and Otis were named to the all-tournament team.
As a coach, Barth said last year’s state victory was something he had hoped to continue. This year had a lot of variables though — the team didn’t start the season even knowing whether they’d get a chance to defend their title. Barth said he’s glad that chance did come.
“Some of them definitely put a lot of value into winning that, especially the seniors,” Barth said of the players.
Looking back on the season as a whole, Barth noted that it takes a lot of resilience to deal with the year they’ve had — one full of masks, constantly changing schedules and limited teams to play against.Watching the Mariners play on Saturday, he said he was proud of how they came together, put personal goals or wishes aside and committed to doing what was best for the team.
“It wasn’t about one person,” he said after his squad finished 5-5 overall.
Barth said things could have gone differently if any of the players had lost their focus or been distracted by penalties or other aspects of the game.
“It took all of them being focused,” he said of the win.
Barth said that while the team wasn’t sure what version of a hockey season they were going to get this year, they were able to focus on what came their way.
“It just can’t be stated enough, just the mental fortitude it took to do that,” he said of the team.
Palmer becomes this year’s state championship runner up.
Homer 4, North Pole 1
Keegan Strong made 29 saves as the Mariners moved into the championship.
Fiona Hatton, assisted by Kazden Stineff, and Haylee Owen, assisted by Karl Wickstrom and Elias Allen, put Homer up 2-0 after the first period.
North Pole closed the gap to 2-1 in the second when Mason Wilbur lit the lamp, but Homer came right back with an unassisted goal by Matfey Reutov to go to the third up 3-1.
With 1:07 left, Casey Otis put the victory on ice with an unassisted goal.
Nic Clark stopped 27 for the Patriots.
Palmer 6, Soldotna 1
The Moose stormed into the finals by controlling the game against the Stars.
Just 10 seconds into the game, Gavin Gore was on his way to a hat trick with an unassisted goal. Ryan Martin would put the Moose up 2-0 before the first period was out.
Soldotna, which finishes the season 5-4, had been great at pulling out close games this year, going 3-0 in overtime.
“Tough loss tonight,” Soldotna coach Indy Walton, who is ending his 23-year stint as a hockey coach, said in a text message. “Palmer was running on all 8 cylinders. They jumped out early.
“We have been a fourth period team, but didn’t make it there tonight.”
Dylan Walton cut the gap to 2-1 with 11:02 left in the second on a power-play goal, but Gore and Jeremy Horacek scored a goal apiece in the second and third periods for the Moose.
Ayden See made 16 saves for the Stars, while Jackson Heart stopped 21 for the Moose.
The season ends for Soldotna after the Stars played their first game this season on Jan. 23.
“I have once again been privileged to coach a great group of kids,” Walton wrote. “They have improved tremendously from the beginning of the season.”
Walton said his pride in the group extends off the ice. He said the Stars got the academic award at the tourney. Walton also thought his team showed the best sportsmanship.
“Super proud of them,” Walton wrote.
Kenai Central 4, Houston 2
The Kardinals ended their season 5-3 with a Friday victory in the consolation round.
Daniel Shelden got the Kards off to a quick start, scoring two goals in the first four minutes of the game. Both were assisted by Jacob Begich.
Houston got back in it midway through the first period when Afanasy Efimov scored on the power play.
Kenai then scored the lone goal of the second period when Begich struck on assists from Shelden and Cooper Stock.
Midway through the third period, Kenai made it 4-1 when Black Bucho scored on assists from Stock and Riley Graves.
Braydon Johnson scored a power-play goal with 3 seconds left for Houston.
Jackson Cross had 12 saves for the Kardinals, while Kevin Lewis stopped 15 for the Hawks.
Mariners 3, Moose 2, OT
Homer 0 1 1 1 —3
Palmer 2 0 0 0 —2
First period — 1. Palmer, Logan (un.), 1:22; 2. Palmer, Wheeler (Armstrong, Broughton), 1:48. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00; Palmer 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 3. Homer, Otis (Owen, Knutson), pp, 3:05. Penalties — Palmer 4 for 19:00.
Third period — 4. Homer, Reutov (Wickstrom), 6:20. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00; Palmer 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — 5. Homer, Green (un.), pp, 3:02. Penalties — Palmer 1 for 2:00.
Goalies — Homer, Strong (26 shots, 24 saves); Palmer, Heard (34 shots, 31 saves).
Moose 6, Stars 1
Soldotna 0 1 0 —1
Palmer 2 2 2 —6
First period — 1. Palmer, Gore (un.), 0:10; 2. Palmer, Martin (Hayes), 4:29. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00; Palmer 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Soldotna, Walton (un.), pp, 3:58; 4. Palmer, Gore (Horacek), 4:41; 5. Palmer, Horacek (Greco), 11:58. Penalties — Palmer 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 5. Palmer, Horacek (Greco, Gore), 7:15; 6. Palmer, Gore (Hayes), 14:46. Penalties — Soldotna 3 for 6:00; Palmer 2 for 4:00.
Goalies — Soldotna, See (22 shots, 16 saves); Palmer, Heard (22 shots, 21 saves).
Mariners 4, Patriots 1
Homer 2 1 1 —4
North Pole 0 1 0 —1
First period — 1. Homer, Hatton (Stineff), 9:43; 2. Homer, Owen (Wickstrom, Allen), 10:58. Penalties — Homer 2 for 4:00; North Pole 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 3. North Pole, Wilbur (Holan, Jusczak), 6:19; 4. Homer, Reutov (un.), 10:13. Penalties — Homer 2 for 4:00; North Pole 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Homer, Otis (un.), 13:53. Penalties — none.
Goalies — Homer, Strong (30 shots, 29 saves); North Pole, Clark (31 shots, 27 saves).
Kardinals 4, Hawks 2
Houston 1 0 1 —2
Kenai 2 1 1 —4
First period — 1. Kenai, Shelden (Begich), 0:11; 2. Kenai, Shelden (Begich), 3:34; 3. Palmer, Efimov (Reutov, Johnson), pp, 7:28. Penalties — Houston 2 for 4:00; Kenai 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 4. Kenai, Begich (Shelden, Stock), 5:20. Penalties — Houston 2 for 4:00; Kenai 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai, Bucho (Stock, Graves), 7:39; 6. Houston, Johnson (Efimov), pp, 14:57. Penalties — Houston 1 for 2:00; Kenai 5 for 13:00.
Goalies — Houston, Lewis (19 shots, 15 saves); Kenai, Cross (14 shots, 12 saves).