The Palmer Ice Rink will play host to the prep hockey teams of the North Star Conference this weekend, and like a heavyweight match, the theme seems to be, “Peninsula vs. Valley.”
Last year, prep teams from the Kenai Peninsula — Soldotna, Kenai Central and Homer — combined to go 1-17 against their region counterparts from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
This year, the peninsula teams went 2-15-1 against their Valley foes, so while the win total doubled, the difference was negligible.
“I wouldn’t put (the Valley teams) head and shoulders above everybody else, but they’re clearly above,” said Soldotna head coach Derek Urban. “I just hope that the teams from Peninsula represent well.”
The hosts of the tournament, the Palmer Moose, were the only Valley contingent to fall to their cousins from the south. Palmer lost to SoHi and Kenai on consecutive days in mid-January at home, the same ice the tournament will be played this weekend.
“They’re all pretty close, but between Wasilla and Colony, they have that will to win,” said first-year Homer coach Justin Adams. “That and they have a lot of kids, they have their selection with what kids they want.”
Adams said he heard that Colony saw a turnout of roughly 90 kids at the Knights tryouts early in the preseason. The Mariners, meanwhile, had 24 players to start they season, and after a slew of injuries the current number has dropped to 19.
At the top of the list, Wasilla and Colony enter the tournament weekend with byes as the top two seeds. Wasilla finished at a pristine 10-0, while Colony wrapped up their NSC season at 8-2, their only two losses coming to Wasilla.
Soldotna (3) vs. Homer (6), 2 p.m. Thursday
SoHi, which finished its conference campaign at 5-4-1, enters the tournament on a three-game win streak, including victories over Homer and Kenai Central.
The Stars swept the Mariners in two regular-season conference meetings, 3-0 at Soldotna and 4-1 at Homer’s Kevin Bell Ice Arena. SoHi beat Homer a third time 4-3 at the season-opening Peninsula Ice Challenge tournament in Soldotna, leaving coach Urban feeling confident about his team’s chances.
“We’re expecting a pretty exciting hockey game,” he said. “All our games with them have been pretty exciting and tightly contested.”
The winner will play No. 2 seed Colony in a Friday semifinal at 7:30 p.m.
Urban said the key to solving the Mariners lies in outworking them.
“They won’t go away,” he said. “Those kids have no quit in them, they all have it. Hopefully our boys realize they’re not going to go away.”
Adams said he has tried to instill that workmanlike attitude into his players. Homer finished 7-17 overall this year, a rough outing that can either make or break hockey teams. Adams said as the last seed in the tourney, the Mariners could be dangerous with nothing to lose.
“I’m just trying to teach these kids that they are a team to beat,” Adams said. “They’re as good as they want to be. They just have to show up and play.”
After being asked what Soldotna’s advantage may be, Urban said the Stars have one between the pipes in junior Billy Yoder.
“We’ve ridden Billy pretty hard, so our experience may count for something,” Urban said. “Billy’s grown every year, his development is there, he’s been working hard on controlling rebounds and working the puck more. You’ve seen a more mature Billy Yoder this year.”
One tough spot to manuever this season for SoHi was the social media controversy that erupted around the team Jan. 20, when a SoHi player was reprimanded for an offensive and derogatory message he posted on Twitter the day before concerning the Unites State Presidential inauguration. The firestorm surrounding the incident became so big that the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District issued a statement on Facebook on Jan. 21.
Since the incident, the SoHi player, a team captain on the team, has not played. Urban said the player will not be playing this weekend either.
“I think it was an educational event for everybody involved,” he said about the lasting effects on the squad. “The boys have rallied and they understand he’s not with us at the moment, and the younger kids have to understand they have bigger roles to play now.”
On the other side of the matchup, the Homer Mariners bring a four-game losing skid into the tournament, which coach Adams would like to see ended immediately.
“I told the kids we’re starting at zero,” Adams said. “That’s what we preach this year. Winning a couple games this year would’ve put us in good position, but it’s a whole new game now.”
With Dimitry Kuzmin leading the Mariners offense this season, Adams said he will be relying on team speed that Kuzmin and other playmakers like Garrett Butcher and Tim Blakely possess.
A rotating cast of faces on on-ice shifts have kept the program improving throughout the season, Adams said, and he hopes that has the Mariners prepared for the Stars attack on a smaller Palmer rink more suited for Homer.
“We’ve been trying to get these guys comfortable, putting pucks on net, not shooting high for the glass every time,” he said. “When we’re creating offense, we usually do well.”
Kenai Central (5) vs. Palmer (4), 4:45 p.m. Thursday
The good news for the Kardinals in their opening day matchup is that they have a win over their opponents this year, a 9-8 overtime clincher on Jan. 14.
Kenai head coach Michael Tilly said if his squad hopes to move on to the semifinals, they will need 45 minutes of solid hockey.
“We’re going to have to play a complete game,” he said. “Any teams can win or lose on any given day.”
The winner will advance to Friday’s semifinals in a matchup with top-seeded Wasilla at 5:30 p.m.
As the regular season began to wind down, Tilly made it clear he wanted to see his Kardinals avoid the sixth and final seed at the region tournament. With wins over Homer and Palmer, a 2-8 conference record was enough to pull it off.
In three meetings with the Moose this year, the Kards have the overtime win but also two big losses, a 10-3 conference loss and a 9-4 loss at the Big Lake Lions tournament, both in December.
Tilly said the way to beat Palmer is to take advantage of the team speed, accurate passing and good puck movement.
“(Palmer is) a big team,” Tilly said. “They have a lot of really big kids on their team, they look like a football team on skates. That can be intimidating to a team like us because we have a lot of freshman.
The leaders of the Kenai offensive front, namely juniors Jakeb O’Brien, Levi Mese and Matt Hagel, have been able to consistently produce scoring chances this year, but often it has had to keep up with goals allowed from the other end.
Coach Tilly said the Kards have been working hard the past two weeks in shoring up defensive weaknesses, so the tournament will be an opportunity to test the best system Kenai can bring.
“Hopefully we don’t have to score eight goals to win a game,” Tilly said. “Last week against SoHi, we let in an empty-netter, so realistically we limited them to four goals.”
Another advantage Kenai may have comes down to venue. After years of playing at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, which is a bigger, Olympic-sized rink, the Kardinals made the move back to their home ice at the open-air Kenai Multipurpose Facility, just a stone’s throw from the high school. The facility is the same size as many of the other rinks around the state, including the Palmer rink.
“It’s a very similar rink to Kenai, it’s nice and fast,” Tilly said.
With the game minutes contested on their home ice, perhaps it is time for Kenai to break out with a region tournament victory over a team they split with in the regular season.