When Thursday’s first-round state tournament game with Chugiak went into overtime, the Soldotna Stars hockey team had to be feeling the game was right in their wheelhouse.
For SoHi, it was the third straight overtime game — and seventh of the year — going back to last Friday, so when the buzzer sounded after regulation with a 1-1 score, Soldotna knew what to do.
Unfortunately for the Stars, a state title bid went up in smoke with a 2-1 loss to the Mustangs at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
Thursday’s tilt took three overtime periods to decide a winner, but Sam Hanson netted the game-winner for Chugiak 2 minutes, 59 seconds, into the period to the uproar of the blue-and-black-clad crowd.
Before the game went into extra minutes, however, it looked like Soldotna was on the verge of becoming the first Kenai Peninsula hockey team to win a first-round game at the state tournament, when Soldotna junior Bobo Lott scored the game’s first goal with 10:31 left in the contest.
For Soldotna head coach Aaron Swanson, the final 10 minutes of the game felt slow, as his team tried to hang on to a one-goal lead.
“It was a heartbreaker of a game for sure,” Swanson said. “We wanted to keep playing our game, we didn’t tease anything out, we scored our goal and kept playing the way we were playing.”
With the loss, the Stars get one more chance at keeping their season alive with an 8 a.m. matchup with Lathrop today. If they win, they will compete in the tournament fourth-place game Saturday morning.
Against Chugiak, the Stars were facing pressure all game long, getting outshot 42-22. Swanson said the opening 15 minutes were not exactly what he was hoping for, as the Mustangs outshot SoHi 13-3.
“The first period, we were nervous but we still played well,” Swanson said.
Soldotna had a number of chances to score narrowly brushed away by Chugiak goalie Jack Straub in the second period, but still the game remained scoreless heading into the third period. With both goalies working on a shutout, something had to give.
After Lott’s goal early in the third frame, which he scored on a rebound shot from Coel Nelson, SoHi continued to attack, but the Mustangs became aggressive as they tried to keep their state title chances alive.
“We just kept it as simple as possible,” said Chugiak coach Rodney Wild. “We were just keeping guys committed on defense, getting in the shooting lanes. Usually the teams that win overtimes are the teams that make the fewest mistakes. When you make mistakes in overtime, you don’t get a second opportunity.”
With 1:20 left, Joseph Brazfield took the puck down the ice toward SoHi goalie Cody Harvey and took a shot, lifting it into the air, which Harvey nearly caught. Unfortunately, the puck narrowly slipped by his glove and into the back of the goal to tie things up.
“It was an unfortunate bounce, the defensemen played it perfectly and it went off his stick and our goalie was moving,” Swanson said. “It just took an unlucky bounce and went in.”
Fortunately for SoHi, overtime seemed to be just the thing the Stars needed. The Stars won both overtime tilts they played last weekend in the North Star Conference tournament, including the title game.
“I would say we were comfortable going into overtime more than anything,” Swanson said. “Overtime is definitely a place we’re accustomed to, it’s a pressure-packed situation. I give credit to both teams, it was a great battle all game long.”
After an opening eight minutes that went scoreless, both teams settled in for another eight minutes. In the second overtime, Chugiak outshot Soldotna 10-1.
Going into the ninth overtime period in the span of three games, SoHi finally experienced a letdown when Hanson found some space and went on the attack on the SoHi goal. Harvey blocked his shot, but the puck managed to get underneath him and slowly trickled into the back of the goal for the game-winner.
“Cody played it well, he just about had it,” Swanson said. “It would’ve been another one of those miracle saves, but he’s still the player of the game for us.”
Chugiak coach Wild said he was impressed with Soldotna’s composure afterward.
“For them to come back, playing a game like that with such an emotional letdown, I think the coaching staff did a wonderful job keeping their kids engaged, and not allowing them to feel that emotional drop-down and coming back,” Wild said.
Swanson said that an early morning matchup on Friday is not what his team was hoping for, but expressed confidence that the Stars will fight back.
“The big thing is we get some rest, get some fluids, and making sure we’re up early to get started early in the game,” Swanson said. “We can’t play another first period like we did tonight.
“We’ve got to play three periods of hockey, and knowing us, maybe three periods will turn into four, five or six again.”
Thursday in Wasilla
Mustangs 2, Stars 1, 3OT
Chugiak 0 0 1 0 0 1 —2
Soldotna 0 0 1 0 0 0 —1
1st period — no scoring. Penalties — Chugiak 1 for 2:00.
2nd period — no scoring.
3rd period — 1. Soldotna, B. Lott (Nelson, O’Lena), 4:29; 2. Chugiak, Brazfield (unassisted), 13:40.
Overtime — no scoring. Penalties — Chugiak 2 for 4:00; Soldotna 2 for 4:00.
2nd overtime — no scoring.
3rd overtime — 3. Chugiak, Hanson (Hammer) 2:59.
Shots on goal — Chugiak 13-5-12-1-10-1—42; Soldotna 3-7-8-2-1-1—22.
Goalies — Chugiak, Straub (22 shots, 21 saves); Soldotna, Harvey (42 shots, 40 saves).
Power play — Chugiak 0 for 2; Soldotna 0 for 4.