Goalie Billy Yoder and the Soldotna hockey team are dancing to the state hockey tournament.
Yoder, bobbing and shuffling to the songs he liked between faceoffs and when leading his team out before periods, made 34 saves as the No. 4 seed Stars knocked off top-seeded Palmer 3-1 in the semifinals of the North Star Conference hockey tournament at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The victory over Palmer, which was 9-0-1 in the NSC regular season, gives Soldotna a third state berth in four years and moved the Stars into the championship against No. 2 seed Colony. The Knights topped No. 3 Wasilla 5-1 in the other semifinal.
Making the triumph even more impressive is the fact that Kenai Peninsula teams were 1-17 against Valley teams in the NSC regular season.
“We just wanted to have fun,” said Yoder, a sophomore who also sported a mohawk for the game. “When we have fun and play loose, that’s when we play better.”
And as for the dancing?
“When I have my game, that’s when I’m dancing a lot,” the goalie said.
Yoder, silkily snaking between the pipes all night, had his game. That meant the Stars did too.
“When they see Billy loose but focused, it spreads through the team,” Soldotna coach Derek Urban said. “It addresses any nerves they may have before the game.”
Urban said he has an immense amount of respect for Palmer, which has nine seniors to SoHi’s three and went 2-0 against the Stars this year. For that reason, Urban emphasized to his team that a full game would be needed, and Soldotna got the message.
“They were there waiting to take the ice five minutes before warmups,” Urban said. “That’s when I got the idea that they might be ready to go.”
SoHi had the lone goal of the first period when Matthew Daugherty, assisted by Corey Hanson, struck from between the circles for a power-play tally.
“Matthew had a great game, probably his best game of the season for us,” Urban said. “In the past, he’d kind of retaliate when things got physical, but he didn’t tonight.”
Despite the great start and the early and often indications Yoder was on fire, the Moose served notice throughout the game with some rib-rattling hits that they would be no easy out.
“It was really physical,” said Soldotna junior forward Jace Urban. “But the big thing was, we didn’t retaliate. It could have gotten a lot worse.”
Palmer senior forward Darren Fish tied the game at 1 with nine seconds left in the second period when nobody from Soldotna tied up on a faceoff, giving Fish the clean shot.
But the Stars still were confident heading into the third period.
“We knew we could take them,” Jace Urban said. “The first time we played them we took the lead and we all started yakking at each other and it went downhill fast. Tonight, we didn’t let that happen.”
Soldotna had something else up its sleeve thanks to a 3-2 overtime loss to Homer in mid-January. Shortly after the game, captains Cole Crandall, Jace Urban, Levi Hensley and Ethan Brown went to their coach and asked for more dry-land training so they could win the third period.
Enter Galen Brantley Jr., the SoHi football coach and also what coach Urban calls the “off-ice coach.”
“He’s been working us pretty hard to get us ready for the third period, and that’s the period we’ve been winning,” Jace Urban said.
Just 3:42 into the third, Hensley and Jace Urban had a two-on-two and Urban screened Palmer goalie Cody Grogan, who had 17 saves, long enough for Hensley to produce a 2-1 lead with a shot off the inside of the pipe from between the circles.
As they had all game, the Stars did a great job keeping the puck outside until Cameron Knowlton, assisted by Daugherty, clinched the state berth with an empty-net strike with 54 seconds left.
“On defense, we’ve been doing a good job keeping the puck outside all year,” coach Urban said. “Tonight, our plan was also to keep the puck outside on offense, then cut to the net.
“We did a good job of that, I think because they knew if they tried to get up the middle, they were going to get hit.”
Stars 3, Moose 1
Soldotna 1 0 2 —3
Palmer 0 1 0 —1
First period — 1. Soldotna, Daugherty (C. Hanson), pp, 11:59. Penalties — Soldotna 3 for 6:00; Palmer 4 for 8:00.
Second period — 2. Palmer, Fish (un.), 14:51. Penalties — Soldotna 5 for 10:00; Palmer 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 3. Soldotna, Hensley (Knowlton), 3:42; 4. Soldotna, Knowlton (Daugherty), en, 14:06. Penalties — Palmer 3 for 6:00.
Shots on goal — Soldotna 7-9-4—20; Palmer 12-15-8—35.