While the Soldotna hockey team completed a turnaround regular season Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, Houston looked to be a team eyeing a similar turnaround.
The Stars completed their regular season by defeating the Hawks 7-3. Soldotna went from 1-9 in the North Star Conference a year ago to 9-1 in the Railbelt Conference this season.
David Aley had a hat trick for the Stars, while Alex Montague racked five assists.
Houston, a team with just three seniors, fell to 0-9 in the league with a game left against Kenai on Saturday at 2 p.m. The Hawks trailed just 3-2 heading into the final period, though.
“Give credit to Houston,” Soldotna coach Indy Walton said. “They didn’t play like a last-place team.
“They played strong defensively and were quick to capitalize on our mistakes.”
Seniors Tanner Craig, Cody Nye, Mackenzie Powell, Sam Skolnick and Braxton Urban were honored as a part of senior night.
In the locker room before the game, Walton said he spent time honoring the seniors and not talking strategy.
“We came in thinking it would be an easy cakewalk,” Urban, the captain, said. “Houston played tough against us. They got a lot of shots, outpassed us and crushed us against the boards.”
The Stars also were missing Galen Brantley III, Craig, Logan Shane and Josh O’Lena.
The Hawks had lost 10-1 in Homer on Thursday, but Houston coach Lane Styers said his starting goalie was suspended right before the trip. Kevin Lewis, a freshman without experience at this level, took over in net against Homer and allowed 10 goals on 26 shots.
Friday, Soldotna misfired on a few great chances early, Lewis made big saves early and he was off to the races on a 60-save night.
“It was night and day,” Styers said. “He got the jitters out with the first one.”
First-period goals were by Soldotna’s Ethan Yeager and Houston’s Isaiah Rasnake-Squires.
Rasnake-Squires struck again in the second period before Aley and Wyatt Medcoff came back with goals before the end of the period.
Walton said of 11 Houston shots in the second, his team assisted on five. He said great play by Powell, who had 31 saves, kept things from being worse.
The coach chewed his team out in the locker room and the Stars responded.
“They came out in the third period and played a lot better,” Styers said of the Stars. “Before that, we had them on their heels a little bit. They were making mistakes they don’t normally make.”
Aley had two goals in the third, while Luke Kline and JD Schmelzenbach also scored.
While praising Aley’s nose for being in the right place at the right time, Walton was more impressed with Montague’s five assists.
“He’s seeing the ice better this year,” the coach said. “He’s unselfish and he’s going a great job of setting guys up.”
The Stars, No. 1 from the Railbelt, begin play at the state tourney Thursday, while Houston still has an outside shot of extending its season if it beats Kenai.
Urban said Soldotna wants a state title, but he also paused to appreciate Friday.
“It’s really an accomplishment for this team going from 1-9 to 9-1,” he said. “It’s the way we went about it the whole year, improving individual skills and playing together as a team.”
Houston 1 1 1 — 3
Soldotna 1 2 4 — 7
First period — 1. Soldotna, Yeager (Walton), 2:28; 2. Houston, Rasnake-Squires (un.), 14:58. Penalties — Houston 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Houston, Rasnake-Squires (Preboski), 0:12; 4. Soldotna, Aley (A. Montague, Skolnick), 1:07; 5. Soldotna, Medcoff (A. Montague, Schmelzenbach), pp, 8:54. Penalties — Houston 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 6. Soldotna, Aley (A. Montague), 1:09; 7. Soldotna, Kline (Miller, Medcoff), 3:32; 8. Soldotna, Schmelzenbach (A. Montague), 6:59; 9. Houston, Preboski (Rasnake-Squires, Nix), 10:47; 10. Soldotna, Aley (A. Montague, Dahlgren), 11:39. Penalties — Houston 1 for 2:00; Soldotna 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Houston 5-13-16—34; Soldotna 19-19-29—67.
Goalies — Houston, Lewis (67 shots, 60 saves); Soldotna, Powell (34 shots, 31 saves).