From last to first.
That’s been the defining theme for the rising Soldotna Stars hockey team in 2018, and they added another chapter to this season Thursday night at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Stars clinched the top seed out of the Railbelt Conference with a 3-2 overtime win over the Palmer Moose. Galen Brantley III tallied the game-winner with 4:21 left in the eight-minute extra period on the power play.
Soldotna lifted its conference record to 8-1, meaning even a loss Friday night to Houston would leave them tied with Juneau (8-2), which has already completed its regular season. SoHi holds the tiebreaker over the Crimson Bears due to two wins over Juneau. A win tonight over Houston would give SoHi the Railbelt title outright.
Palmer (2-5) must rely on grabbing one of two at-large bids to state for the eight-team tournament, and is likely to do so. Palmer plays Kenai (1-7) tonight at 7 p.m. at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility.
The loss for Palmer was big for Homer (5-3), as the Mariners got the help they needed to clinch the third and final spot out of the conference.
SoHi head coach Indy Walton said the turnaround has been great for the team, which finished last in the former North Star Conference in 2017 with a 1-9 conference record, nearly opposite of SoHi’s current mark.
“I really wanted us to win this game,” Walton said. “I would’ve dressed myself if I had to.”
Brantley III scored SoHi’s final two goals of the night — his first gave SoHi a 2-1 lead late in the second period on a power play, just 45 seconds after Palmer tied it on a Zach Nelius goal.
On the overtime winner, Brantley III said one of his teammates (either Wyatt Medcoff or Braxton Urban) fed him the puck along the boards and Brantley simply tried to put it on net.
“I was trying to put it off the far pad (of Palmer goalie Tiernan O’Rourke), trying to get a rebound,” Brantley said. “The goalie misplayed it and I got it through the five-hole.”
The shot took a rebound off the pads of O’Rourke and Brantley swooped in to throw it back, this time under O’Rourke’s legs.
The play was preceded by a Palmer penalty with 5:11 to go in overtime, a cross-checking charge to Alex Nelius. It was the eighth penalty of the night by the Moose, something that Walton and Brantley both pointed to as a game changer.
“Penalties kill you,” Brantley said. “That’s what hurt us last year, and we’ve been working on it.”
The second period was particularly brutal for Palmer, which committed six penalties, including a 10-minute major.
Walton added that SoHi’s puck control helped the team dictate the pace and tempo.
“The team that controls time of possession usually will win the game,” Walton said. “You can even be outshot, but if you control the puck, you can win.”
Walton also credited O’Rourke on standing tall against the Stars, who pelted him with 61 shots on the night, including 26 in the second period. O’Rourke ended with 58 saves, while SoHi goalie Corbin Wirz finished with 34 saves.
Soldotna took the first lead of the night late in the first period on a Gavin Haakenson goal. Haakenson scooped up a loose puck near the Palmer crease to break through first.
The Moose answered back with 2:36 left in the second period soon after killing a SoHi power play. Noah Stoll knocked in the puck on a frenetic play at the net to tie it up.
Brantley’s go-ahead goal came with 1:51 left in the second after going on the power play.
Palmer tied it again with 11 minutes left in the game as Nelius scored on a rebound off Wirz, who had stopped a shot from Luke Theisen.
Homer 10, Houston 1
The host Homer hockey team notched a 10-1 victory over Houston on Thursday in Railbelt Conference hockey.
Connor Roderick and Hunter Warren combined to make 22 saves on 23 shots for Homer.
Stars 3, Moose 2, OT
Palmer 0 1 1 0 —2
Soldotna 1 1 0 1 —3
First period — 1. Soldotna, Haakenson (Walton, Yeager), 13:24. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00; Palmer 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Palmer, Stoll (Nelius, Hooks), 12:24; 3. Soldotna, Brantley (Medcoff), PP, 13:09. Penalties — Palmer 6 for 20:00.
Third period — 4. Palmer, Nelius (Theisen, Wilson), 4:00. Penalties — none.
Overtime — 5. Soldotna, Brantley (Medcoff, Urban), PP. Penalties — Palmer 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Palmer 10-11-11-4—36; Soldotna 15-26-15-4—61.