After taking a 6-1 beating the last time they played Soldotna, the Kenai Kardinals hockey squad was looking for something different Thursday night. They figured it out just in time.
Cody Arbelovsky scored the game-winner with 31 seconds left in the game to give Kenai Central a 3-2 North Star Conference win over Soldotna. The goal gave Kenai its first lead of the night.
“It’s a really big win for us, it’s a rivalry game,” Arbelovsky said. “It’s a great win because it shows how far we’ve come since the last game we played against them.”
Kenai answered each Soldotna goal with a score of its own, then staved off a late SoHi power play to secure the win. Arbelovsky, a junior, said the Kards learned from the previous loss to SoHi to never quit.
“We kept working,” he said. “Last time we hung our heads and stopped playing.”
Kenai moved its season mark to 2-9 overall, while Soldotna dropped to 5-7-2 and 0-4-1 in the conference.
Kenai coach Michael Tilly said the five-goal loss to SoHi in early November was a needed kick in the pants.
“We try to use those losses as motivation and energy,” Tilly said. “We remind the kids of that.”
Cameron Knowlton scored late in the first period to give the Stars a 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission. Knowlton collected the puck off a three-man scramble near the crease and flung it past O’Lena to score the game’s opening goal.
The Kards managed to tie it up at 1-1 in the second period with a little bit of luck. Jacob O’Brien’s long-range shot just a few yards off the blue line took a skip and managed to bounce up and over the glove of Yoder after hitting another player.
Coel Nelson provided a quick spark for Soldotna in the third period, scoring unassisted before two minutes were up to put the Stars ahead 2-1. At that point, coach Tilly said Kenai continued to press forward as if nothing had happened.
“It was just a lot of pent up energy at the end of the game,” Tilly said. “Cody’s one of our more seasoned players, and our older kids work better under pressure. They’re smart and we knew that the alternative is you end up in a tie.”
Before the five-minute mark of the period, Ian Mercado caught the puck on a rebound and responded for Kenai with a statement goal, once again tying the game up.
Kenai was tested with 3:42 to go when Soldotna went on a power play. Soldotna coach Derek Urban called a timeout to assess the game plan. Tilly said once the Kards killed off the SoHi power play with under two minutes remaining, it provided a small boost of energy for Kenai.
“If you can kill a penalty late in the game, the kids seem to find a little extra skip in their step,” he said. “You still don’t want to see those penalties that late in the game.”
With the seconds ticking off the clock, Kenai found itself in Soldotna’s zone. That’s where Arbelovsky got some help from fellow teammates Jacob O’Brien and Levi Mese.
“I went to the corner for a play, and the puck ended up going around and back out to the (defense),” Arbelovsky said. “I made contact with the defense and Jacob (O’Brien) put the puck near the net, and I was lucky enough to scoop it out of there before he covered it and bury it.”
SoHi was unable to answer back in the final 31 seconds, leaving Kenai with a big win.
“I told the kids, my biggest fear is that we’re so used to losing, we don’t know how to celebrate,” Tilly joked.
Kenai goalie Jacob O’Lena received credit for the win with 16 saves on 18 shots. SoHi goalie Billy Yoder took the loss with 13 saves on 16 shots.
Kenai continues play today with a 5 p.m. tilt with the Chugiak Mustangs, while Soldotna will face Chugiak Saturday at 5 p.m.
Kardinals 3, Stars 2
Kenai Central 0 1 2 —3
Soldotna 1 0 1 —2
1st period — 1. Soldotna, Knowlton (Nelson, Lott), 11:33. Penalties — none.
2nd period — 2. Kenai, O’Brien (Arbelovsky), 13:15. Penalties — Kenai 2 for 4:00.
3rd period — 3. Soldotna, Nelson (unassisted), 1:56; 4. Kenai, Mercado (Hagel, Eubank), 4:33; 5. Kenai, Arbelovsky (Mese, O’Brien), 14:29. Penalties — Kenai 1 for 2:00; Soldotna 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai 2-6-8—16; Soldotna 4-9-5—18.
Goalies — Kenai, O’Lena (18 shots, 16 saves); Soldotna, Yoder (16 shots, 13 saves).
Power plays — Kenai 0 for 2; Soldotna 0 for 3.