For 44 minutes and 32 seconds of Friday’s state hockey semifinal, a berth in Saturday’s championship game loomed large for the Soldotna Stars.
But everything changed in a heartbeat.
SoHi suffered a late collapse in a heartbreaking loss in the Division II championship tournament semis, losing 4-3 in overtime to the Palmer Moose.
Palmer senior Darian Wilson tied the game with 28.5 seconds left in regulation, then junior Zach Nelius scored the game-winner 2:31 into the overtime period to complete a remarkable three-goal comeback and send Palmer to Saturday’s state final.
The Stars ultimately took home fifth-place honors at the tournament after losing 3-1 Saturday afternoon to Juneau-Douglas.
Friday’s finish left the SoHi locker room a solemn scene.
“They came out that second and third periods and outplayed us,” said junior forward Wyatt Medcoff. “Simple as that.”
Palmer fell behind 3-0 in the first period but flipped the momentum in front of a raucous home crowd, scoring twice in the second period and tying it with just 28.5 seconds left in regulation on a flick in from Wilson to force an eight-minute overtime frame.
Soldotna head coach Indy Walton blamed the collapse on a SoHi team dealing with sickness that sucked the energy and stamina out of players as the game wore on.
“I’ve never put so much medicine in my bag before,” Walton said.
It became evident as Palmer began to control puck possession for large swaths of the second and third periods, holding it in Soldotna’s zone as the Stars frantically worked to clear the puck and keep goaltender Josh Tree from taking shots. Tree finished with 37 saves on 41 shots.
Palmer coach Dean Wilson said what helped the Moose in the final two periods was staying out of the penalty box. Palmer committed two violations in the first period and allowed a power-play goal.
“We started playing five-on-five hockey,” Wilson said. “We told our guys, keep your sticks down and don’t do anything stupid, and you’re going to win the game.”
Wilson said a deadly power-play unit and a deep team that extends to the third line helped bring Palmer back into the game.
“We’ve been working on this all of January,” Wilson said. “As long as we can get a power play in there, we’re feeling good.”
Soldotna defeated Palmer twice this year, both games by 3-2 scores, but was left reflecting on what happened in the most important matchup of the year.
“They’ve been there twice (this season) on the losing end with us,” Walton said. “We know how they feel now.”
Alex Montague, Galen Brantley III and David Aley scored for SoHi in the first period as the pucks were seemingly going SoHi’s way. Moose goalie Tiernan O’Rourke almost allowed a score with 52 seconds left in the period to Sam Skolnick on a misplayed puck by a defenseman, then did allow one on a similar play with 35 seconds left. Aley caught the puck on a mistimed Palmer pass and slotted it home for a 3-0 Stars lead.
The momentum began to shift in the second period when Montague was called for interference and Wilson capitalized on the Moose power play to kick in a rebound shot off of Tree’s pads.
Nathan Hooks cut the lead to 3-2 later in the period, setting up a tense third stanza. Nelius had two great looks on goal with around four minutes to play but couldn’t knock in the rebound on either shot.
“Props to Josh, he had a really nice game today,” Medcoff said. “Those two goals really didn’t define him.”
Palmer called a timeout with 1:25 to play, and the break evidently helped. Walton called the game-tying goal one of the luckiest he has seen with such high stakes.
“It wasn’t even a shot, it was a butterfly,” he said.
With the late change of fortune, Walton said the switch from playing a preventative defensive scheme to returning to attack mode proved to be difficult.
“Chip the puck out of our zone,” Walton said when asked what the late game message was. “High off the glass, whatever you’ve got to do to keep it out of our zone and keep it deep.”
In overtime, the Moose found a way to get the puck near the crease and when sticks began whacking, it was only a matter of time before the puck found its way in, as it bounced away from a scrum and onto the waiting stick of Nelius, who slotted it home to begin the wild celebration.
Despite the state semifinal loss, Walton said the state result doesn’t wipe away a successful season that included winning the Railbelt Conference title, SoHi’s sixth in school history.
“That’s the goal, regroup and rebuild,” Walton said. “We’ll miss our seniors. They’re the ones this loss will be the hardest for.”
Juneau 3, Soldotna 1
Saturday’s third-place game turned sour for SoHi with two goals by Juneau in the second period. Galen Brantley III closed the gap to 2-1 in the third period with a power-play strike, but the weary Stars had nothing more for the Crimson Bears.
The game was also the final hurrah for the senior class of Braxton Urban, Kenzie Powell, Cody Nye and Sam Skolnick.
After the game, Urban said playing for Soldotna is something he’ll always hold dear.
“It’s hard to comprehend that this is it,” he said. “For me it’ll always be about the white and blue jersey with stars on the front.”
Urban said his post high school plan is to go into the process technology program at Kenai Peninsula College, while Powell said her plans are still unknown but she hopes to play college hockey.
Powell said junior teammate Wyatt Medcoff stood up and delivered a “going away” speech after Friday’s semifinal loss, which she described as touching.
“He said every win next year will be a step forward for the team,” she said. “He said next year will be dedicated to this year’s seniors.”
Powell’s short stature as a goalie isn’t something that typically draws attention from opponents, but Powell said the teammates and coaches she has had over her prep career at SoHi have inspired her to be great.
“Just giving me confidence,” Powell said when asked what were the greatest team lessons she has learned. “We’re all a family, we’ve all grown together. They’re always back there with me, talking to me.”
Before the seniors stepped off the ice for the final time, they had to contend with the Crimson Bears. Juneau broke open a scoreless game with two power-play goals in the second period from Ethan Welch and Finn Yerkes.
Galen Brantley III capitalized on a Bears power play to score SoHi’s only goal with 10:17 left in the third, but Juneau goalie Cody Mitchell stood tall in goal as SoHi pelted him with pucks. The Stars outshot the Bears 17-4 in the final period.
Overall, Mitchell stopped 40 of 41 shots for Juneau. SoHi goalie Corbin Wirz warded off 16 of 19.
Moose 4, Stars 3
Soldotna 3 0 0 0 —3
Palmer 0 2 1 1 —4
First period — 1. Soldotna, Montague (Walton, Kline), 5:06; 2. Soldotna, Brantley (Montague, Schmelzenbach), PP, 10:53; 3. Soldotna, Aley (Skolnick, Montague), 14:25. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00; Palmer 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 4. Palmer, Wilson (A. Nelius, Hooks), PP, 2:59; 5. Palmer, Hooks (Wilson, Armstrong), 8:23. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00; Palmer 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 6. Palmer, Wilson (Armstrong), 14:32. Penalties — Soldotna 2 for 4:00; Palmer 2 for 4:00.
Overtime — 7. Palmer, Z. Nelius (Hooks), 2:31.
Shots on goal — Soldotna 11-9-14-2—36; Palmer 10-12-15-4—41.
Goalies — Soldotna, Tree (41 shots, 37 saves); Palmer, O’Rourke (36 shots, 33 saves).
Crimson Bears 3, Stars 1
Soldotna 0 0 1 —1
Juneau 0 2 1 —3
First period — no scoring. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00; Juneau 4 for 8:00.
Second period — 1. Juneau, Welch (unassisted), PP, 2:33; 2. Juneau, Yerkes (Bosse, Welch), PP, 3:59. Penalties — Juneau 1 for 2:00; Soldotna 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 3. Soldotna, Brantley (Haakenson, Medcoff), PP, 4:43; 4. Juneau, Bosse (Welch), PP, 8:32. Penalties — Soldotna 2 for 4:00; Juneau 3 for 17:00.
Shots on goal — Soldotna 12-12-17—41; Juneau 2-13-4—19.