The numbers hanging over the Kenai Peninsula teams at this weekend’s North Star Conference hockey tournament are not pretty. One win in 18 games against their Valley contemporaries is all the Soldotna Stars, Homer Mariners and Kenai Kardinals have to show for this season.
In those 18 conference games, the Palmer, Colony and Wasilla trio combined to outscore SoHi, Kenai and Homer 101-29. The lone victory for a peninsula squad came Jan. 16, when SoHi toppled Colony 6-2.
However, don’t tell the local coaches that the odds are stacked against them.
Just take a moment to delve into the statistics of the top-seeded Palmer Moose, which ended the year 9-0-1 in conference play. Against the SoHi Stars, the Moose won two very close matchups 4-2 and 5-4, both intense contests that were determined by third-period play. SoHi led Palmer 2-0 early in the first game, only to see its lead slip away with a go-ahead goal in the third period. In the second contest, the Stars then scored three third-period goals to nearly complete a comeback against the Moose.
Palmer and second-seeded Colony (7-2-1 in NSC play) receive byes on the opening day of the NSC tournament, which begins today at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The top two teams — in this case the two championship contestants — qualify to the state tournament the following weekend, meaning that Friday’s two semifinal contests will determine who makes the trip.
Soldotna head coach Derek Urban said even though his Stars went 1-5 against Valley squads this year, each game featured close competition.
“I know we only got the one win, but there wasn’t really any game that we were out of,” Urban said. “The (January) loss to Palmer comes to mind. I thought we played them pretty tough all across.”
Urban said the team’s win over the Knights was one that proved the level SoHi can play at when the Stars focus for a full 45 minutes.
“When we beat Colony, it was a complete team game start to finish,” he said. “There were no letdowns, and getting on the board first was a huge advantage.”
Homer lost both NSC matchups to No. 1 Palmer, but the Mariners did tie the Moose 3-3 at the Palmer Ice Classic in November. Homer coach John Carlin wrote in an email that the standard cliche of anything goes in tournament play certainly applies here.
“I feel that on a given night if Peninsula teams play as well as they can, they can beat the (Valley) teams,” Carlin wrote. “That is not always the case in Region tournaments.”
In their regular-season matchups against the three Valley teams, Kenai played top seed Palmer the closest, with a pair of 5-2 and 10-4 losses. Against the lowest Valley squad, No. 3 Wasilla, which Kenai will face in Thursday’s opening matchup, the Kards were demolished 12-0 and 12-1 in NSC play. The Warriors finished 6-4-0 in NSC play this season.
“The third seed doesn’t mean much in this conference,” said Kenai head coach Michael Tilly. “That still means you’re a pretty good team.”
As the season wore on through December and January, Tilly believed that Colony was the strongest team in the region. Which is why he was surprised to hear Soldotna had beaten the Knights.
That kind of game leaves Tilly and the Kardinals feeling confident of this weekend’s tournament, which features a one-and-done format. One loss on either Thursday and Friday, and the season is done.
“If everything was done by statistics, we wouldn’t come to play,” he said.
“It’s going to come down to which team ate their Wheaties that morning.”
In addition to the tournament games, the weekend will also feature a skills competition that will begin 10 a.m. Friday. Included on the menu will be hardest shot, fastest skater, stick-handling gauntlet, shooting sniper and a shootout.
The following is a closer look at both opening-day matchups.
Soldotna (4) vs. Homer (5),2 p.m. Thursday
The Stars begin with an old, familiar foe in the Mariners. The winner today advances to play No. 1 Palmer Friday at 7:30 p.m.
The two teams split four games this year. Homer won the first and final matchups with scores of 4-1 and 3-2 (in overtime), respectively, but dropped the middle two games with scores of 5-4 and 4-1 to the Stars.
The quartet of games also proved that home ice advantage may not be as important. Both the Mariners and Stars won two games on the road while losing both of their home contests to each other.
Carlin wrote that the Mariners are hoping to peak at the right time of the season.
“The games these two teams have had range from unheard of 0-0 games to several one puck finishes for a few years,” Carlin wrote. “On paper there are not a lot of differences, it is going to be an exciting game for the spectators.”
Urban said the competition between the two sides has become more intense with each passing game. Although the season results on home ice don’t prove it, Urban hopes the Olympic-size rink of the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex will help the Stars beat the Mariners, which play on the smaller Kevin Bell Ice Arena rink in Homer.
“Homer always plays us tough, it’s always a good spirited game,” Urban said. “The teams are pretty even, so our boys need to come out with their A game.”
Coming off a confident 6-0 win over Kenai on the final day of the regular season Saturday helped propel SoHi to a solid week in practice, Urban said, and he hopes the Stars will build off of that confidence. Urban added the team will be needing a big game from sophomore goaltender Billy Yoder.
“Homer is well coached, those kids have a never-say-die attitude,” he said. “We’ve been (leading) in games, and they won’t go away. They play to the final horn.”
Wasilla (3) vs. Kenai (6),
4:45 p.m. Thursday
In two conference games against Wasilla this year, Kenai was outscored 24-1. Against peninsula teams, the Warriors went undefeated, but against fellow Valley squads, Wasilla failed to win a game.
But coach Tilly said the uphill battle to move on in the tournament is something that his Kards have experience all season long.
“They played with a lot of adversity,” Tilly said. “You’ve got to have confidence, and every time we drop the puck, I tell them it’s a new game.
“The kids have a good work ethic, they believe in themselves, they believe in the team, and in the end, it’s about the enjoyment of the sport.”
The winner today advances to play No. 2 Colony Friday at 5 p.m.
After Saturday’s regular-season ending shutout loss to SoHi, Tilly said the Kards are in a good position to come out swinging today.
“I thought the kids found a little something in themselves the other day,” he said. “It was a good preparation game coming into this tournament.”
Tilly said he will be working hard to keep rotating shifts on and off the bench against Wasilla, a team that, like Kenai, is relatively young but harbors more team speed on the ice.
“It’s not going to be your grinders, your big defenseman that wins those games,” he said. “It’s going to be our quick, agile guys that win it.”