Kenai Central never led in regulation in Thursday’s North Star Conference tournament quarterfinal against Palmer, but the Kardinals didn’t need to.
All it took was 23 seconds of sudden-death overtime hockey and Kenai skated off with a stunning 5-4 victory over the Moose to advance to the tournament semifinals. The Kards will face No. 1 Colony tonight at 5 p.m., a team Kenai lost twice to in the regular season, with a spot to state on the line. The top two teams qualify to state.
Jordan Knudson notched the game-winner just 23 seconds into overtime with a bizarre shot that began in a Palmer defensive breakdown. Knudson rushed to the defenseman between the circles and managed to get his stick on the puck for a soft shot that glanced off Palmer goalie Cale Winder’s pads and up over his head. The puck landed behind Winder in the crease before trickling in to secure the victory for Kenai, triggering a wild celebration in front of the home crowd.
“It wasn’t the hardest shot, but it didn’t need to be,” said Kenai head coach Jacob Newton. “His hustle and heart got him that goal, and that’s what we needed.”
The goal was the first time Kenai led after going down 3-0 in the first period. The Kards tied it up with three unanswered goals in the second period, then had to rally again in the third to force overtime. Levi Mese tied it up with 7:03 to play in regulation.
Knudson, a sophomore, said it was just his second ever overtime winner and the first in high school for him.
“I put some pressure on the defense and the shot hit me,” Knudson said. “It basically went straight up, and I thought I saw it go in (immediately) at first, but luckily it took a bounce and went in.”
The game was also the second overtime win for Kenai in five days, following up a 6-5 triumph over Soldotna in the regular season finale Saturday.
“I’m beat tired,” Knudson said. “We had to grind it out.”
Kenai freshman Josh Tree stopped 24 of 28 shots in goal for the win, while Palmer goalie Cale Winder warded off 15 of 20 shots, including the one and only shot in the extra period.
Palmer head coach Dean Wilson said the Moose, whose season ends with the loss, fell off in defensive intensity after going up three goals.
“We had an opportunity to make a difference,” Wilson said. “And we didn’t capitalize on it.”
Palmer grabbed a 3-0 lead in the first period with two goals from RJ Avezac, but Kenai returned in the second period with ferocity and efficiency, rallying back to tie it with three unanswered goals on just five shots from Nate Beiser, Matt Hagel and Knudson.
Mese played a role in the first strike just 36 seconds into the second on a breakaway to the Palmer net, rushing to the crease and flinging the puck across to Beiser for the goal. Hagel’s score came on an assist from behind the Moose net from Knudson, and Knudson’s game-tying goal came amid a scrum in the crease, just 2:23 after the previous goal.
“I thought we’ve got to get somebody motivated,” Newton said about the second-period comeback. “We need somebody to get that first hit, that first goal. It was pretty quiet in the locker room, and I told them that the next goal wins the game.”
David Scully put the stunned Moose back in front with 5:19 left in the second period on a power play, but Kenai continued to press.
Mese’s game-tying strike with just over seven minutes left in the game developed in the Palmer zone as Mese was able to slip between two Moose defenseman to get Winder alone for the shot.
Wilson said his Palmer squad struggled defensively after the first 15 minutes.
“Once those mistakes were showing up, (Kenai) was heads up and attentive,” Wilson said.
The win puts the Kards one win away from a trip to state, their first in years, but a tough Colony squad awaits in tonight’s semifinals.
“It’s huge,” Newton said. “It’s something Kenai hasn’t done in a long time, and the kids want to be here.”
Kenai was also without forward Jakeb O’Brien, who was injured late in last weekend’s contest against Soldotna. Newton said while there is no ligament damage in his knee, O’Brien’s playing time Friday will likely be an overnight decision.
Wasilla 4, Soldotna 1
The third-seeded Warriors secured a spot in Friday’s semis with a quarterfinal win Thursday over the sixth seed Stars.
Wasilla will face No. 2 Homer at 7 p.m. tonight with a state bid on the line, while SoHi’s season ended on the spot.
“There were a lot of emotions, which led to a lot of penalties,” said Stars head coach Indy Walton, referring to the team’s 5-to-2 penalty ratio.
Wasilla dominated the game with a 35-11 shots advantage, but SoHi kept it close with a 1-all tie until the third period. Alex Engan broke the stalemate with 11:45 remaining in the third to put Wasilla up 2-1. Hayden Masterson sent the puck from the corner to an awaiting Engan, who was situated between the circles to deliver the winning shot.
Zachary Roush notched an insurance goal with 7:53 to play and Engan buried an empty-netter with 56.9 seconds left to secure the victory.
Galen Brantley III scored SoHi’s lone goal of the evening with 4:41 left in the first period.
SoHi sophomore Corbin Wirz finished with 31 saves between the pipes, while Aaron Campbell stopped 10 shots in the win for Wasilla.
Warriors head coach Trent Schachle said the Stars’ late-season run of play and the underdog role they carried was not to be taken lightly, even though SoHi was a sixth seed.
“We didn’t take anything for granted until the empty-netter,” Schachle said. “We were just trying to get pucks on the net, crash the net.”
Walton said the team’s run of competitive play late in the regular season helped take the sting off Thursday’s season-ending loss.
“I’d say we peaked at the right time, the end of the season we were playing our best,” he said. “I think we turned a lot of heads, and impressed a lot of fans.”
Walton said a key target in SoHi’s strategy was containing Wasilla skater Porter Schachle, who finished with one goal and an assist. Schachle recorded 60 points for Wasilla in the regular season, and Walton said keeping that kind of talent in check helped SoHi stay within striking distance for the first two periods.
“Our defensive play was working,” he said. “Two of our goals were off our defensemen’s sticks, so we were close with them.”
Schachle opened the scoring 3:34 into the game, capitalizing on a Stars defensive miscue to slot the puck by Wirz on a short breakaway, but after that the SoHi defensive zone tightened up.
Brantley knotted things up before the first intermission with a darting move to the net that resulted in a top-shelf strike over Campbell’s shoulder.
North Star tournament
at Soldotna Regional Sports Complex
Kardinals 5, Moose 4, OT
Palmer 3 1 0 0 —4
Kenai 0 3 1 1 —5
First period — 1. Palmer, Avezac (Brooks, Theisen), 7:21; 2. Palmer, Wilson (Keil), PP, 10:44; 3. Palmer, Avezac (Hooks, Welch), 12:25. Penalties — Palmer 1 for 2:00; Kenai 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 4. Kenai, Beiser (Mese, Hagel), :36; 5. Kenai, Hagel (Knudson, Mese), 5:03; 6. Kenai, Knudson (Beiser, Gabriel), 7:26; 7. Palmer, Scully (Wilson, Keil), 9:41. Penaties — Palmer 5 for 10:00; Kenai 6 for 12:00.
Third period — 8. Kenai, Mese (Beiser), 7:57. Penalties — none.
Overtime — 9. Kenai, Knudson (unassisted), :23. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Palmer 10-11-7-0—28; Kenai 8-5-6-1—20.
Goalies — Palmer, Winder (20 shots, 15 saves); Kenai, Tree (28 shots, 24 saves).
Warriors 4, Stars 1
Wasilla 1 0 3 —4
Soldotna 1 0 0 —1
First period — 1. Wasilla, Schachle (Roush), 3:34; 2. Soldotna, Brantley (Medcoff), 10:19. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00.
Second period — no scoring. Penalties — Wasilla 1 for 2:00; Soldotna 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 3. Wasilla, Engan (Masterson), 3:15; 4. Wasilla, Roush (Wohlers, Schachle), 7:07; 5. Wasilla, Engan (unassisted), 14:04. Penalties — Wasilla 1 for 2:00; Soldotna 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Wasilla 9-14-12—35; Soldotna 7-3-1—11.
Goalies — Wasilla, Campbell (11 shots, 10 saves); Soldotna, Wirz (34 shots, 31 saves).