The last time the Kenai Central and Soldotna hockey teams saw each other, Kenai was skating off the ice with a crushing 10-1 victory. It didn’t leave much anticipation for an exciting season finale between the two hard-nosed rivals.
Saturday night featured two completely changed teams, however, and the fans got their money’s worth.
In a wild game that saw mammoth momentum swings, Kenai prevailed 6-5 in overtime to sweep the regular season series with SoHi and claim the fifth seed in next week’s North Star Conference tournament.
Levi Mese netted the game winner with 3:35 left in the overtime period, scoring short-handed on a breakaway to end the thrilling game and give Mese a hat trick on the night.
Mese said has only scored a handful of overtime goals in his hockey career, but Saturday’s was certainly one of the sweetest.
“(Matt) Hagel gave me a good pass, and I had good position,” Mese said.
Six lead changes and 11 combined goals made for a tense game that went 49 minutes, 25 seconds, and Mese said the intensity level was pegged.
“(It’s) tiring,” he said. “Very tiring. Every Kenai-Soldotna game is always intense.”
The win was crucial to the winner’s state hopes. At 2-8 in the conference, Kenai gets the No. 5 seed at the region tourney next weekend and will face No. 4 Palmer, while 1-9 Soldotna must contend with the likes of No. 3 Wasilla.
Kardinals head coach Jacob Newton did not disagree when asked if Soldotna was a different team than the one Kenai beat twice earlier this season by a combined score of 17-3.
“I told our team before the game, this is a different SoHi,” Newton said. “We can’t expect another 10-1 game from them.”
Soldotna was coming off a weekend that saw the Stars topple Dimond, one of the top teams in the state that is currently the second seed in the ultra-deep Cook Inlet Conference, and the Kards were fresh off a weekend that saw them beat East Anchorage on one day and stake out a 2-1 lead on Dimond before falling to a loss.
SoHi head coach Indy Walton said he liked his team’s chances against Kenai, and Soldotna showed it by outshooting the Kardinals 37-30 on shots.
“Our team doctor told me, ‘I can’t believe how different this team is,’” Walton said. “We knew we had it in us to go the distance.”
SoHi sophomore goalie Corbin Wirz stopped 24 of 30 shots in the loss, while Kenai netminder Josh Tree saved 32 of 37 shots to earn the win.
Walton praised his team’s effort, adding that the sting of a loss doesn’t hurt as bad knowing what could lie ahead.
“I’ve got texts from people now, saying that they couldn’t believe how close we played them,” Walton said. “We’re going to play hard at regions.”
Galen Brantley III scored two goals for SoHi and Journey Miller added three assists.
In addition to Mese’s hat trick, Matt Hagel notched a goal and three assists for Kenai.
After playing to a 4-all tie after two periods, the third period featured a dizzying array of near misses and brilliant saves by both goalies.
Brantley rushed in to net the go-ahead goal on an assist from Lucas Kline with 6:51 to go, but it didn’t last long.
Only 22 seconds passed before Kenai knotted it up again, this one on a Nate Beiser top-shelfer. Beiser redirected the puck in from a pass by Hagel behind the net.
Kenai went on the power play with 4:21 left, but couldn’t convert after receiving a roughing penalty less than a minute later that was compounded by a misconduct charge.
In overtime, Kenai dodged a bullet after being caught with too many men on the ice with 5:12 to play, as Mese managed to catch SoHi off guard to net the winning tally.
Earlier in the game, Dylan Walton snuck in a goal from a tough goal line angle to put SoHi up 2-1 at the end of one period.
Kenai seized momentum early in the second period with two quick goals from Mese and Hagel just 44 seconds apart that put the Kards up 3-2 with 10:23 left in the period.
Brantley evened the score with 3:51 left in the second on a power play, swooping in to catch an assist from Wyatt Medcoff.
SoHi freshman Gavin Haakenson scored with 1:02 left in the second to put the Stars up 4-3, but not before Kenai’s Jakeb O’Brien went down with an injury and had to be helped off the ice.
The Kards were not done. Moments after the puck hit iron, Mese caught the puck and sent a shot off from between the circles to tie things up with just 4.8 ticks left in the period, setting up the dramatic third period.
Kardinals 6, Stars 5, OT
Kenai 1 3 1 1 —6
Soldotna 2 2 1 0 —5
First period — 1. Soldotna, Montague (Miller, Aley), 2:33; 2. Kenai, Knudson (Mese, Eubank), 6:15; 3. Soldotna, Walton (Miller), 10:53. Penalties — none.
Second period — 4. Kenai, Mese (Knudson), 3:53; 5. Kenai, Hagel (Harvey, Burnett), 4:37; 6. Soldotna, Brantley (Medcoff, Schmelzenbach), 11:09; 7. Soldotna, Haakenson (Miller, Walton), 13:58; 8. Kenai, Mese (Hagel), 14:55. Penalties — Kenai 3 for 6:00; Soldotna 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 9. Soldotna, Brantley (Kline, Skolnick), 8:09; 10. Kenai, Beiser (Hagel, Burnett), 8:31. Penalties — Kenai 2 for 4:00; Soldotna 1 for 2:00.
Overtime — 11. Kenai, Mese (Hagel), 4:25. Penalties — Kenai 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai 11-15-5-5—30; Soldotna 9-9-10-3—37.
Goalies — Kenai, Tree (37 shots, 32 saves); Soldotna, Wirz (30 shots, 24 saves).