For 41 minutes, 57 seconds, on Saturday evening in Soldotna, the SoHi and Homer hockey teams kept the crowd and each other on edge with a scoreless hockey game.
With 3:03 left in the game, Homer finally managed to slip the puck past Soldotna for a 1-0 win at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The victory also pushed the Mariners to a 2-1 season series edge over the Stars, and improving the Mariners’ North Star Conference record to 3-5-1. Soldotna dropped its conference record to 5-4 with the loss.
Homer junior Kiril Sanarov notched the game-winner by corralling the puck from two Soldotna defenders and rushing out on a one-man breakaway toward SoHi goalie Cody Harvey. Sanarov tapped the puck just out of reach from Harvey’s grasp and up into the right corner of the netting, finally breaking the tie.
“(I told them) we needed five more shots on net,” said Homer coach John Carlin. “If (Soldotna) could have five less shots on net that would be big. We let them have way too many shots in the first period, we only had eight. The second period was closer, and we knocked them down defensively.”
Harvey saved 19 of 20 shots on goal, while Homer goalie Markian Polushkin earned the shutout with 39 saves.
“I didn’t really think about it, I just played my game,” Polushkin said. “You can’t think about it because every time you think about a shutout, it never works. Nobody says it because it’s a cursed word.”
Carlin said he had read an article earlier in the season that quoted Kenai Central coach Pete Iverson as describing the Mariners as a perimeter team, and Carlin wanted to prove that Homer could contend for shots up close.
“We’re trying to rebound harder than at the beginning of the season,” Carlin said. “We took that to heart, and that’s something I feed off of. Give me a bunch of bad press and I’ll feed off it all day long.”
However, Carlin admitted that in Saturday’s matchup, his squad continued to shoot from the perimeter, instead of getting the type of crease shots that Soldotna was getting.
In the first period, Soldotna outshot Homer 18-7, many of those chances coming directly in front of Polushkin, and on more than one occasion, it was the duo of Ty Fenton and Nick Wrobel giving Polushkin pressure. In the second period, Homer slowly began to tighten its defense, holding Soldotna to an 8-6 shot advantage.
Heading into the third period, both goalies were trying to preserve a shutout — it would come down to which one held up the best when it counted most.
“The thing I tell the kids is to keep going hard to the net and keep moving the puck,” said Soldotna coach Aaron Swanson. “I feel like we had a letdown in the second period, just too many guys trying to do something big instead of just passing the puck and getting it to the net.”
With 3:38 left, Wrobel found some space on the right wing, took a slapshot high in the air, but Polushkin staved off the goal with a quick grab of the puck, keeping the crowd on edge.
“I covered up the puck, we got the whistle, and the guys got a break,” Polushkin said. “I don’t know, it was crazy.”
The Mariners finally caught a break just seconds after that play, when Sanarov stole the puck from the SoHi defense and raced off toward Harvey on the other end of the ice to score the lone goal of the night.
“It really was just a matter of desire on both sides tonight,” Swanson said. “It was a good battle all around, we just came up on the short end of it.”
Carlin said he was not able to give Sanarov a lot of time in the game due to a strained groin muscle, and that forced him to change up his strategy on Homer’s line shifts.
“I could only spot-shift him here and there,” Carlin said. “We held him back until the second half of the game, and then we got him in late.
“I knew the second half of the game we had a different lineup based upon him getting back into the lineup. So we preplanned that to introduce him later in the game.”
Soldotna will face Kenai in its final regular season game on Feb. 3 at the SRSC. The Stars are ranked third in the North Star Conference at 5-4, while Homer is fifth at 3-5-1 and Kenai is fourth with a 4-4 record. The Kards also have a game with Homer remaining. The Kards travel to play Homer at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Saturday, Soldotna Regional Sports Complex
Mariners 1, Stars 0
Homer 0 0 1 —1
Soldotna 0 0 0 —0
1st period — no scoring. Penalties — none.
2nd period — no scoring. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00.
3rd period — 1. Homer, Sanarov (Kuzmin, Tillion) 11:57. Penalties — none.
Shots on goals — Homer 7-6-7—20; Soldotna 18-8-13—39.
Goalies — Homer, Polushkin (39 shots, 39 saves); Soldotna, Harvey (20 shots, 19 saves).
Power plays — Homer 0 for 1; Soldotna none.