In the midst of what has been a testing year for the Kenai Central hockey team, Thursday’s North Star Conference battle with Homer seemed to be headed down the road to another loss.
However, a late second-period surge propelled the Kardinals to a thrilling 6-5 victory over the Mariners at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. With the win, Kenai moved to 3-10 overall in 2015.
Two days after being handed a 10-1 loss by Soldotna, Kenai returned with an entirely different mindset, something that Kardinals coach Michael Tilly said helped change Kenai’s tactics. Plus, as the final game before the Christmas holidays kick off, there is no better way to finish off 2015.
“After the other night, we took the last two days off and did nothing with hockey,” Tilly explained. “We reinvented ourselves, and we decided to come back on the ice as a new unit.”
Kenai sophomore Levi Mese led the offensive attack with four goals, a career high for him, including the game-winning score with 4 minutes, 41 seconds, remaining in the game.
“That last game at SoHi, we didn’t play so well,” Mese said. “This is a real pick up.”
Mese teamed up with Jakeb O’Brien to decimate the Homer defense. The duo combined for 10 points, with O’Brien tallying four assists to Mese’s four goals. Kenai forward Ian Mercado also scored and had three assists for Kenai, while Dimitry Kuzmin notched a hat trick in the losing effort for Homer.
Mese said familiarity helped to play a role in the performance, as he and O’Brien have been playing hockey for nine years on various levels.
“He was tearing it up, and we’ve been playing for more years than I can count,” Mese said. “There’s decent chemistry there.”
Ryan Williams saved 31 of 36 shots on goal for Kenai, while Homer goalkeeper Hunter Warren stopped 13 of 18 shots.
A pair of goals by Kuzmin put Homer up 2-0 before six minutes were up, but Mese pulled Kenai back a goal with a power play score 7:37 into the game.
Down 2-1 entering the second period of play, Kenai suffered a costly penalty that put them on the penalty kill for five minutes. In that time, Homer scored twice, starting 1:20 into the power play on a goal by Kuzmin that completed his hat trick. Kuzmin shot from the far side of the right faceoff circle to score, then was followed up with a goal from teammate Jack Heimbold just over two minutes later. Heimbold was credited with the goal after a long range shot from forward Robby Larson deflected off Heimbold’s stick in the crease.
It was not until late in the period that momentum swung the other way. After Homer was charged with a penalty, Kenai seized the power play opportunity and notched a goal from Jakeb O’Brien with 3:45 left.
Then, with 1:59 remaining in the frame, Mese scored again with help from Mercado and O’Brien to close the gap to 4-3, and Mese completed his hat trick with just 26 seconds left in the period to tie the game at 4 apiece. Mese dumped off the puck to teammate Mercado, who then shoveled it right back to Mese, who was open for a 1-on-1 strike.
It took only two minutes of the second period for the Kards to take their first lead of the night. Mercado slipped by the Homer defense moments after a pass from O’Brien that left him in a 1-on-1 rush on the Homer goal, and Mercado’s shot slipped just beneath the pads of Warren.
However, Homer answered quickly with a goal from Tim Blakely just 23 seconds after Kenai scored.
In the minutes following the Blakely goal, a slashing call put Kenai on the penalty kill, which they successfully completed with 5:40 to play.
59 seconds after the penalty was killed off, Kenai found its chance. Mese collected the puck from O’Brien and skated up the middle into open space, and deftly delivered the puck to the top shelf of the Homer net for the go-ahead goal, inciting a roar of cheering from the players on ice and the bench crowd.
“(O’Brien) chipped it up to me, and I made the play from there,” Mese said.
After the euphoria died down on the Kenai bench, Homer tested the Kards more and more. The Mariners pulled Warren from the net with 1:05 left, but nothing got by Williams in goal.
“I was more nervous at that point than excited,” admitted Tilly. “When you’re playing with only two (offensive) lines, it’s real easy to sap the kids’ energy, and we were drawing from the younger kids as well.”
Kenai and Homer will be the first to see each other again after the holiday break, when the two sides face off in an endowment game January 5 in Kenai.
Kardinals 6, Mariners 5
Homer 2 2 1 —5
Kenai 1 3 2 —6
1st period — 1. Homer, Kuzmin (Roderick), 3:31; 2. Homer, Kuzmin (Warren, Wiest), 5:41; 3. Kenai, Mese (O’Brien, Maxson), pp, 7:37. Penalties — Kenai 1 for 2:00; Homer 1 for 2:00.
2nd period — 4. Homer, Kuzmin (Blakely), pp, 2:13; 5. Homer, Heimbold (Larson), pp, 4:31; 6. Kenai, O’Brien (Mercado, Mese), pp, 11:15; 7. Kenai, Mese (Mercado, O’Brien), 13:01; 8. Kenai, Mese (Mercado, Eubank), 14:34. Penalties — Kenai 1 for 5:00; Homer 1 for 2:00.
3rd period — 9. Kenai, Mercado (O’Brien), 2:01; 10. Homer, Blakely (Butcher), 2:24; 11. Kenai, Mese (O’Brien), 10:19. Penalties — Kenai 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai 7-7-4—18; Homer 10-12-14—36.