The Soldotna Stars knew going into Thursday’s North Star Conference quarterfinal matchup against the Homer Mariners to expect a tight game.
Give a nod to all that dry-land training the Stars put in.
In such a hotly contested clash to determine who moves on to the semifinals and whose season ends on the spot, SoHi needed every bit of strength to hold on for a 3-2 victory over Homer at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
“It’s never easy on the old body,” quipped Soldotna coach Derek Urban.
After splitting a quartet of games this season, both teams traded blows throughout the 45 minutes of the rubber match, as each Soldotna goal — save for the last one — was answered with a goal by Homer.
Cameron Knowlton, Levi Hensley and Jace Urban each scored to propel the Stars to the win. In goal, Billy Yoder stood tall for SoHi with 28 saves on 30 shots.
“Cameron and Jace were both a big part on our offense, they really help out a lot,” Hensley said. “And Billy always stands on his head for us in every game.”
With the win, SoHi advanced to the tournament semifinal against No. 1 Palmer today at 7:30 p.m. The Moose beat SoHi in both conference tilts this year, but the final scores of 4-2 and 5-4 do not demonstrate how competitive the Stars played Palmer.
Urban said he is hoping to see his squad make inroads Friday on toppling the top seed.
“I’d like to see us match Palmer’s intensity,” he said. “We played them tough this year, so anything can happen.”
With the loss, Homer saw its season come to an end. Mariners coach John Carlin said as disappointing as it is to end the season earlier than they wanted, he was proud to see the team fight down to the final second.
“We knew it was going to be a one-puck affair going in,” Carlin said. “Hats off to SoHi, they’re a great team.”
Thursday against a large Homer team, SoHi had to work hard to eke out the victory. Homer scored both goals on six power-play opportunities.
Hensley said extra dry-land workouts this season helped the Stars throughout the contest, as the game came down to who had the most stamina and energy left. In previous contests against Homer and Palmer, it was big third-period efforts that helped Soldotna. In a mid-January loss to Palmer, the Stars nearly completed a big comeback by scoring three goals in the third period.
“We worked to own the third period in most games this year,” Urban said. “We wanted to go out there and own it, and we hope the dry-land work pays dividends.”
Knowlton scored midway through the first period with help from Urban and Hensley on a power play. Urban knocked the puck out of the right corner of the rink and into the clutches of Knowlton, who scored from the edges of the crease for a 1-0 Stars lead.
The Mariners answered just a few minutes later on a power play. Charlie Menke caught the puck from Hunter Tillion and slipped it by Yoder to tie the game.
Soldotna retook the lead with 1:09 left in the opening period on a breakaway that began with Knowlton, who intercepted the puck in the Stars’ defensive zone. Hensley finished off the rush with a tip in at the net.
“Cameron got a nice break off a Homer pass, and I was lucky enough to get it in,” Hensley said.
It was another penalty that caught Soldotna out in the second period. Tillion sent a laser shot from long range into a mess of players around the Stars net, and Garrett Butcher was there to deflect it in, once again tying the affair at 2-all.
However, Soldotna wasn’t satisfied going into the second break with a tie game. Urban scored the go-ahead goal with 36 seconds left in the frame with assists from Knowlton and Hensley.
“That killed any momentum we had,” Carlin said. “Once (Soldotna) scored, we couldn’t come back from that.”
The third period played out scoreless, but it did not lack action. Homer turned up the wick on the Stars, hoping to get a third tying goal. The Mariners had a chance with 5:21 to go when Soldotna once again was handed a penalty, this one a roughing call on Knowlton.
The Stars killed off the penalty and preserved the win.
Wasilla 8, Kenai 2
The Wasilla Warriors continued their theme of dominance over the Kenai Kardinals this season and rolled to a quarterfinal victory Thursday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Seven different players scored for Wasilla, led by the two goals of Alex Clark. A total of 11 players recorded at least one point as well, as Cody Butcher had a pair of assists and Austin Stephens, Dawson Monk and Garrett Conroy each had an assist to go along with a goal apiece.
Wasilla advances to Friday’s semifinal clash with No. 2 Colony at 5 p.m. It’s a matchup that has Wasilla coach Trent Schachle looking for redemption, as the Knights are 2-1 against the Warriors this season.
“I think it was good to have a few extra periods here on the ice,” Schachle said. “(Colony’s) forwards are fast, but so are ours, and it’s going to be a battle.”
Thursday against Kenai, Schachle said his squad’s fast start was what he wanted to see, but it also may have led to a lull in intensity by Wasilla in the second frame. Trailing 5-1 heading into the period, Kenai mounted several close charges that nearly resulted in points.
“That’s why we play every game,” Schachle said. “They have players that can score if you let your guard down.”
It was just over two minutes into the period when Jakeb O’Brien scored on a power play to cut Wasilla’s lead to 5-2. The Kards then held the Warriors scoreless the remaining duration of the second period to head into the second intermission down three goals.
However, Wasilla put to bed any thoughts of a comeback with a goal 57 ticks into the third period. Russell Harren collected a loose puck that popped out from a pack of players and lifted it to the top shelf to extend Wasilla’s lead to 6-2. Stephens and Rivas both scored in the final six minutes of the game to ice the win.
Kenai coach Michael Tilly said the Kards did not harbor any expectations for the game, but the big goal was to not have a letdown in the second period, a trend that has dogged the Kards all season.
“We dug ourselves a hole in the first period and couldn’t climb out,” Tilly said. “But we finally got the monkey off our backs in the second period. It helped them believe.”
In the first period, Kenai senior Chris Hagel got the Kardinals on the board with a goal at 8:29 of the first frame, closing the gap to Wasilla to 4-1. Tilly said that was Hagel’s second goal of his varsity career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“He put himself in great position on that goal, and it was pretty cool,” Tilly said.
However, it only took 30 seconds for Wasilla to answer with its fifth goal of the period. Clark found the puck unmarked in the crease and scored to push the lead to 5-1.
Wasilla also outshot Kenai 40-18, including 12-4 in the final period of play.
Tilly added that the Kards have a bright future after a struggling season. He plans on hosting a weekend session that will include middle-schoolers interested in playing high school hockey in the next two weeks.
“I told the kids not to be disappointed in their game,” he said. “It may be disappointing to lose, but if you played your hardest, you can’t be disappointed.”
at Soldotna Regional Sports Complex
Stars 3, Mariners 2
Homer 1 1 0 —2
Soldotna 2 1 0 —3
1st period — 1. Soldotna, Knowlton (Urban, Hensley), 7:48; 2. Homer, Menke (Tillion), pp, 10:54; 3. Soldotna, Hensley (Knowlton), 13:51. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00; Soldotna 2 for 4:00.
2nd period — 4. Homer, Butcher (Tillion), pp, 5:04; 5. Soldotna, Urban (Hensley, Knowlton), 14:24. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00; Soldotna 2 for 4:00.
3rd period — none. Penalties — Soldotna 2 for 4:00.
Shots — Homer 9-9-12—30; Soldotna 12-5-6—23.
Goalies — Homer, Swanson (23 shots, 20 saves); Soldotna, Yoder (30 shots, 28 saves).
Power plays — Homer 2 for 6; Soldotna 0 for 2.
Warriors 8, Kardinals 2
Wasilla 5 0 3 —8
Kenai 1 1 0 —2
1st period — 1. Wasilla, Conroy (C. Matson), 1:06; 2. Wasilla, Monk (O. Matson), 2:56; 3. Wasilla, Clark (Tubbs), 6:44; 4. Wasilla, Tubbs (Butcher, Monk), 7:31; 5. Kenai, Hagel (Bulot), 8:29; 6. Wasilla, Clark (unassisted), 8:59. Penalties — Kenai 2 for 4:00; Wasilla 2 for 4:00.
2nd period — 7. Kenai, O’Brien (Bulot, Mercado), pp, 2:21. Penalties — Wasilla 2 for 4:00.
3rd period — 8. Wasilla, Harren (Butcher, Stephens), :57; 9. Wasilla, Stephens (Conroy), 9:10; 10. Wasilla, Rivas (Holohan), 14:21. Penalties — Kenai 3 for 6:00.
Shots — Kenai 7-7-4—18; Wasilla 14-14-12—40.
Goalies — Kenai, Williams (40 shots, 32 saves); Wasilla, Curry (18 shots, 16 saves).