WASILLA — Expecting a tight game, expecting a battle, the Soldotna Stars had a game plan.
And for the most part, the plan worked.
But Wasilla was able to find a way to grab a late goal, and the win.
Sophomore Colton Fletcher weaved through traffic and placed a backhander five-hole with 1 minute, 9 seconds, left in regulation to help give the Warriors a 3-2 win over the Soldotna Stars in the Northern Lights Conference Championships title game at the Menard Arena in Wasilla.
Nick Wrobel gave the Stars an early lead with a breakaway goal, and Dalton Pearson scored late to tie the game at 2. Both goals came off Wasilla turnovers.
“We were trying to keep it a low-scoring game and capitalize on mistakes,” Soldotna head coach Aaron Swanson said.
In the first, with the Warriors skating through their final seconds of a power play, Wrobel stepped up near Wasilla’s back line and poked away a Wasilla pass. Wrobel chased the loose puck through the neutral zone, split the defense and broke away for the score. In the third, Wasilla left a loose puck at the right wing circle in its own defensive zone, and Pearson smacked it in the Wasilla net.
Soldotna buried those two pucks, but finished with only eight shots on the game.
“On the offensive end, we definitely didn’t generate the offense we would have liked to have, getting the shots,” Swanson said.
Swanson said he knew the game would be close.
“This is the third time we’ve played them this year, and all the games have been one-goal games,” Swanson said. “Coming in I expected it to be a tight, back-and-forth game, a tight game. I am sure that is what they expected too.”
Wasilla outshot Soldotna 25-8 in the game, and that followed along with Wasilla’s game plan, assistant coach Jeff Urban said.
“We talked about that before the tournament. Our goal both games was to keep them to 10 shots. I felt like we could do it,” Urban said. “I felt like if we kept the puck deep, and took care of business in our own zone, getting it out, we felt like we could hold any team in this tournament to 10 shots.”
Wasilla captain Brett Keene said that’s exactly what the Warriors worked on.
“Our game plan all night was to get the puck in deep and grind it out,” Keene said. “We just played as a team. We had awesome (defense) and our forwards were awesome keeping it in the zone.”
With the teams skating 4 on 4, Fletcher steadily skated throughout the Stars defensive zone. With the puck on Fletcher’s stick, Wasilla coach Jeff Urban said it was time to sit back and watch the sophomore work.
“Just watch, because he can move the puck pretty well,” Urban said. “Sit back and enjoy it. He’s done it before. Big games, big moments, he will step up.”
Fletcher took the puck near the Soldotna blue line, skated past a pair of Stars as he cruised through the right wing circle. He cut back toward the crease, beat the last SoHi defender, and slipped a shot through the blockers of Soldotna goalie Cody Harvey.
“When Fletcher’s got the puck, we’re usually not too worried about whether he’s going to score or not,” Keene said. “He’s pretty good at putting them away.”
Fletcher scored twice in the game. His first came with the Warriors shorthanded, and he tied the score at 1. With the Stars on the power play, Fletcher picked off a pass in the SoHi defensive zone. The turnover created a short breakaway and Fletcher beat Harvey, glove side.
About three minutes later, Blake Carricaburu gave the Warriors the 2-1 lead with a blast from the point.
In the late game Friday, a late push in each period pushed the Soldotna Stars into state tournament for the first time since 2009.
Soldotna scored all four of its goals during the final two minutes of a respective period, and the Stars posted a 4-2 win over Palmer during the NSC.
Kenny Griffin, Jacob O’Lena, Wrobel and Pearson each scored for Soldotna. The O’Lena, Wrobel and Pearson goals came on special teams.
Griffin buried a breakaway goal at the 1:29 mark of the first period to give his team the 1-0 lead. The underclassman picked up the loose puck in transition, skated free between the circles and beat Palmer goalie Ashton Good glove-side to put the Stars on the scoreboard.
The Griffin goal came several minutes after each had high-quality chances on net. Palmer freshman Josh Myers trickled a puck just inches wide of an open piece of the Soldotna net, and mere seconds later, Wrobel broke free but couldn’t not slip a puck by Good’s blocker.
Palmer used a power-play goal to tie the game at 1 midway through the second frame, but the Stars struck twice during the final two minutes of the second period.
O’Lena slapped a shot from the point that took an odd bounce into the back of the Palmer net, and SoHi led 2-0. Wrobel added to that advantage with a shorthanded tally 45 seconds later.
Pearson capped the scoring with a late power-play goal.
Jim Erickson tied the score at 1 for the Moose in the second. Freshman Christopher Dojka, from behind the net, put a shot off the side of the goal. The buck deflected and slid through the left wing circle. Erickson stepped up from his position on the blue line to slap a shot past SoHi goalie Harvey.
Freshman Darren Fish recorded his second goal of the tourney, when he scored early in the third period. Fish, who knocked in a rebound of a Luke Wright shot at the 13:33 mark, cut SoHi’s lead to 3-2.
Good had 25 saves for the Moose, who were outshot 29-19.
Wasilla made it to the finals by blanking Homer 3-0.
Troy Verplancke, Colton Fletcher and Jack Reeves scored for the Warriors.
Tegan Harrington centered a pass from behind the net to Verplancke, who lifted a shot high into the Homer net to give the Warriors a 1-0 lead in the second period.
Later in the second, Cooper Hanson slipped a puck forward to Fletcher, who broke away and beat Homer goalie Alex Sanarov. The breakaway tally gave Wasilla the 2-0 lead.
Hanson also set up Wasilla’s third goal of the game, a Reeves tally late in the game.
With the win, Wasilla is making its fourth straight trip to the NSC title game.
Wasilla 3, Soldotna 2
NSC title game
Saturday, Menard Arena
First period — 1. Soldotna- Wrobel (unassisted) 6:06.
Second period — 2. Wasilla- Fletcher (unassisted) sh 8:38; 3. Wasilla- Carricaburu (Verplancke, Reeves) 5:03.
Third period — 4. Soldotna- Pearson (unassisted) 7:08; 5. Wasilla- Fletcher (unassisted) 1:09.
Shots on goal: Wasilla 5-10-10—25, Soldotna 1-5-3—8; Saves: Wasilla- Massie 0-5-2—7, Soldotna- Harvey 5-8-9—22.
Soldotna 4, Palmer 2
Friday, Menard Arena
First period — 1. Soldotna- Griffen (unassisted) 1:29.
Second period — 2. Palmer- Erickson (Dojka) pp 7:48; 3. Soldotna- O’Lena (Pearson) pp 1:56; 4. Soldotna- Wrobel (unassisted) sh 1:11.
Third period — 5. Palmer- Fish (Wright) 11:33; 6. Soldotna- Pearson (Wrobel) pp 1:32.
Shots on goal: Soldotna 7-10-12—29, Palmer 8-5-6—19; Soldotna- Harvey 8-4-5—17, Palmer- Good 6-8-11—25.
Wasilla 3, Homer 0
Friday, Menard Arena
First period — no scoring.
Second period — 1. Wasilla- Verplancke (Harrington) 9:15; 2. Wasilla- Fletcher (Hanson) 6:54.
Third period — 3. Wasilla- Reeves (Hanson) 1:09.
Shots on goal: Homer 6-5-6—17, Wasilla 9-11-11—31; Saves: Homer- A. Sanarov 9-9-10—28, Wasilla- Massie 6-5-6—17.