The high school hockey season will come to an end this weekend with the ASAA First National Cup state hockey championships at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
The three-day tournament will feature only one local team — the Soldotna Stars. The Stars beat the Palmer Moose 4-2 on Friday, which automatically qualified them for the state tournament, before dropping the conference championship game 3-2 against Wasilla, which finished undefeated in the conference.
In that game, SoHi was tied 2-2 with the Warriors until Wasilla’s Colton Fletcher scored the game-winner with 1 minute, 9 seconds, left in regulation. Junior Nick Wrobel and senior Dalton Pearson had the two goals for Soldotna.
For the state tournament, the top two finishers from the North Star and Mid Alaska conferences participate, along with the top four Cook Inlet Conference teams. The Stars begin play at 2:30 p.m. today against Service. If SoHi wins that game, they will advance to the semifinals to play the winner of the West Valley/Dimond match.
“Going into the tourney, we’re excited for the opportunity to be there and a chance to play when most other teams are done,” SoHi coach Aaron Swanson said. “We’re going in with the attitude of an underdog, so we’ll be coming in and doing our best to compete. Every game, every shift will be important.”
The trip will mark the first state tourney since 2009 for the Stars, but coach Swanson said since he’s been the Soldotna coach, a Kenai Peninsula hockey team has not won a first round game at the state tournament.
In order for SoHi to buck the trend, Swanson said he will be relying on his team to do what the Stars do best — defend and goaltend.
“On the defensive end of the ice, as a team we do the best to limit the high-scoring opportunities, and we don’t give up the scores,” Swanson said. “For sure, we’ve scored a lot of goals in transition this year. We fill in the lanes, block shots, we sometimes get that odd-man rush, and it gives us chances.”
SoHi goalie Cody Harvey has been instrumental in the team’s success this year, recording three shutouts for the Stars, all consecutively, in the month of January. Unfortunately, all three games ended 0-0, so if SoHi wants to defeat Service today, the Stars will have to find some offensive firepower as well.
“Cody is one of the key pieces of the team,” said Swanson. “But Service is one of the best teams in the state, and they’re a high seed from Anchorage. They get quality shots, they have a big passing game, they like to play an uptempo game and there’s a lot of puck movement.”
At the NSC tournament last weekend, the All-Tournament teams announced after the final competition featured some of SoHi’s finest players. The first team included forward Dalton Pearson, defenseman Matti Silta, and goalie Cody Harvey. The second team also featured Soldotna players, as forwards Jarrett Urban, Jonas Perletti, Shayne Miller, and defenseman Jacob O’Lena made the cut.
All four forwards listed have the ability to create scoring chances, Swanson said, and those players create offensive lines that have been successful this season.
“We count on those guys and a few others for sure to step up,” he said. “They’ve done it all year, and a couple of other guys have stepped up and together, they’ve done a lot of great things for us.”
Swanson didn’t downplay the importance of getting off to a quick start, but also mentioned that the Stars need to keep the Cougars from doing the same thing.
“It’s more important to settle into the game and make sure they don’t get off to a fast start,” he said. “We’re definitely a team that likes to play close games and they like to keep it exciting. These kids never get rattled in a tight game.”
Having played a number of tight games this year, the experience could pay off for Soldotna. The Stars will either advance into the semifinal round with a win on Thursday, or drop into the consolation bracket with a loss. Either way, the team they will be facing will be West Valley or Dimond, depending on the winner of that matchup.
“We’ve seen Dimond play, and they’re also a powerhouse program in state that do very well,” Swanson said. “West Valley is a nice program as well. Both are solid teams that will be tough.”