With no consolation bracket and no way to make it to state without making the finals, there’s a certain finality to the first two days of play at the North Star Conference tournament.
Both Kenai Central and Homer will face that finality tonight at the Soldotna Sports Center when the tournament gets under way.
Homer, the No. 6 seed, faces No. 3 seed Colony at 5 p.m. No. 5 Kenai faces off with No. 4 Wasilla at 7 p.m.
The loser of each game will see its season end. The Kenai-Wasilla winner faces No. 1 Soldotna in a 7 p.m. semifinal Friday, with the winner making state and playing in Saturday’s 3 p.m. championship. The other semifinal, at 5 p.m., features No. 2 Palmer and the Homer-Colony winner.
“The whole season comes down to one night in this tournament,” Kenai coach Pete Iverson said. “Even for the No. 1-ranked team, if they lose their first game, they’re done.”
The Kardinals drew a good matchup with the Warriors. Kenai has lost four straight, with its last victory coming over Wasilla by a 2-0 score on Jan. 19. The Kards also fought to a 1-all draw with the Warriors at the sports center on Dec. 1.
“It’s one of those teams that our team seems to kind of click with when we play them,” Iverson said. “We seem to match up with each other pretty well.”
Iverson said his team’s troubles of late have come because of problems scoring. Kenai has scored just six goals during the four-game losing streak.
“We’re creating the opportunities, we’re just not finishing,” Iverson said. “We’ve got to score. You can see it as the games progress and the score is low.
“We get in a hurry to make stuff happen, and make mistakes we normally wouldn’t.”
It’s no secret the Kardinals rely on Zack Zulkanycz for scoring. His 22 goals and 32 points easily lead the team.
Iverson said teams have been keying on Zulkanycz, and other players need to take advantage. Zulkanycz’s linemates are TJ Wagoner, with six goals and 11 points, and Zack Mese, with seven goals and 18 points.
Iverson also said contributions from forwards Jake Eubank and Russell Dukowitz would be huge.
A defense led by Matt Morse, Andrew Hamilton and Hydn Johnston should be solid, especially with senior goalie Keegan Remsen backing it up.
“Keegan is such a huge asset to the team this year,” Iverson said. “He allows our team to take chances, which hopefully turn into goals for us.”
Despite the losing streak, Iverson said his team realizes state is not out of reach. The Kards are 0-3-1 against SoHi this year.
“Tournament play always has some surprises,” Iverson said.
Homer, which defeated Kenai 2-1 on Saturday for its first conference victory over the year, is in a situation similar to Kenai’s.
The Mariners get great goaltending from Alex Sanarov.
“We’ve had Alex get hot and nobody could score on him,” Homer coach Buck Laukitis said. “Obviously, everybody has a good goaltender this year, so it’s difficult for us to score on a lot of teams.
“We’ll see who is the best this week.”
The Mariners will face Forest Savel in net tonight, and Laukitis said Savel is probably the best goalie in the conference. He has allowed an average of two goals per game this year. Savel shut out Homer on Jan. 19.
“We don’t score enough,” Laukitis said. “We’re getting better. That’s what’s nice. Our kids are looking better in practice. We’ll see how they do in a game.”
Dennis Sanarov and Kai Simmons anchor the Homer defense.
For scoring, Homer will look to forwards Mark Reutov, Kiril Sanarov, Nikit Matveev, Erik Rosencrans and Ethan Kizzia.
“The pressure is on Colony,” Laukitis said. “We’re a 1-9 conference team. All the pressure is on them.
“Our kids have high expectations for themselves, but most teams take us lightly and we use that to our best advantage.”
Nobody at the tournament will take Soldotna lightly. At the same time, nobody is ready to award the host Stars the trophy. The Stars were 3-0-1 against Kenai and 1-1-0 against Wasilla.
“We feel that if we play within our system, and play confident, we’ll give ourselves a great chance,” SoHi coach Aaron Swanson said. “We’ve worked all year to get the bye for the first round. Our goal all year has been to get the first day off and set ourselves up for the second day.”
The Stars last went to state three years ago, when they also won the conference tournament.
Like the rest of the teams, the Stars bring a solid goalie to the party. Cody Harvey is 14-4-2 this year, allowing 1.76 goals per game.
“That’s the ‘X’ factor,” Swanson said. “There’s a lot of really great goaltenders at this tournament. If one of them has a great weekend, that’s probably a team that’s contending, if not winning it all.”
Swanson said he is hoping his team’s depth gives it an edge.
“A lot of years you go in, whether you’re talking about our team or another team, and if you control one player, or one line, you have a great chance to win,” Swanson said. “Our team is built around the fact that all three lines play, and you’ve got to control all three lines.”
Soldotna recently defeated Kenai 6-1 and Homer 3-0, and received goals from all three lines in both games.
SoHi has four players with over 20 points and another two with over 10 points. Those players are Dalton Pearson (17-12-29), Josh Kerkvliet (12-17-29), Max Hegge (10-17-27), Jarrett Urban (6-17-23), Kevin Stone (3-11-14) and Jonas Perletti (8-5-13).