Shorthanded. On the power play. At even strength.
It didn't matter how many players were on the ice for the Soldotna hockey team. The Stars kept scoring.
Zack Waters finished with a hat trick and the Stars put together an offensive clinic when it mattered most, tallying a season-high six goals to beat rival Kenai Central 6-2 for a North Star Conference win Friday night at the Soldotna Sports Center.
SoHi defeated Homer on Saturday in the regular-season finale, 3-1, to clinch the No. 3 seed heading into the North Star Conference tournament, which begins Thursday at the Palmer Ice Arena. The Stars face the Mariners in the first round. The Kards are the No. 4 seed and face Colony. Game times have yet to be announced.
"Things have really been coming together for us the past few weeks," SoHi coach Aaron Swanson said following Friday's win. "Hopefully we can keep it going."
Injury free and at full strength for the first time in two months, the Stars (12-5-3 overall, 4-3-3 league) set the tone from the opening faceoff against the Kards.
Jarrett Urban, who had three assists Saturday against the Mariners, scored on assists from Max Hegge and Josh Kerkvliet at the 12:22 mark of the first period and Waters tallied his first goal less than four minutes later, giving SoHi a 2-0 lead.
Waters' goal came on a two-on-one breakaway as he took a cross from Sean Endsley and slapped the puck past Kenai Central goaltender Keegan Remsen, who had allowed just one goal in seven periods entering the game. Josh Stinnett also was credited with the assist.
It was a perfect start for the Stars, who lost to the Kards 1-0 in an early season matchup.
"Team flow -- making smart plays, not doing anything stupid, sticking to our game," Waters said of the difference between Friday's win and the previous loss. "The last game we struggled a little bit, bounced back and forth, didn't really focus our game, but this time we stuck to our game and got it done."
Kenai Central (10-11-1, 5-5-0) evened the score later in the first with two goals from Morgan Cunningham.
Zack Zulkanycz earned assists on both scores, giving Kenai Central momentum going into the second.
Then the game fell apart on the Kards.
Kenai Central committed six infractions for 12 penalty minutes and allowed three power-play goals in a span of eight minutes in the second. James Bowen was sent to the box for an elbow at the 14:20 mark -- his first of four infractions -- and Waters scored about 40 seconds later to put SoHi up 3-2.
Bowen was then called for cross-checking as well as roughing with 8:07 to play, earning four penalty minutes, and Kerkvliet converted with the Stars on the advantage.
Before Bowen returned to the ice, Matt Fellman made it 5-2 on an assist from Waters with 5:45 left.
It was a complete meltdown for a team that killed five power plays in as many tries in a win Thursday over Homer.
"We had some mental breakdowns -- big time -- and failed to recover from those quick enough," Kenai Central coach Pete Iverson said. "SoHi was able to capitalize on them."
Waters completed his first hat trick of the season early in the third on what may have been his most impressive score of the contest, firing the puck over Remsen's left shoulder from about 25 feet away with a defender on his heels.
The Stars were shorthanded for the score because Matt Silver had been sent off the ice for hooking.
Swanson credited Waters for finding the right combination of luck and skill on a night when SoHi delivered its best offensive performance of the season.
"He was in the right place at the right time and used his speed to create things -- just some real nice shots," Swanson said. "He picked corners and put it right where he wanted it. It was just one of those nights where everything worked well for him."
Now both squads turn their attention to the conference tournament. Two teams advance to the state tournament, meaning it takes a pair of victories to move on.
Palmer, undefeated in conference play, is the No. 1 seed. Wasilla is the No. 2 seed. Those squads receive first-round byes and await Thursday's winners.
Neither Swanson nor Iverson is looking beyond the first round, saying no matter who the opponent is, it figures to be a challenging game.
"The real thing is, we need to get through the first game," Iverson said. "And you've got to win two games to continue."
Added Swanson: "In our conference this year, it doesn't matter what seed you are. You're going to play a tough team."
Stars 6, Kardinals 2
Soldotna 2 3 1 --6
Kenai Central 2 0 0 --2
First period -- 1. Soldotna, Urban (Kerkvliet, Hegge), 2:38; 2. Soldotna, Waters (Endsley, Stinnett), 6:31; 3. Kenai Central, Cunningham (Zulkanycz), 8:43; 4. Kenai Central, Cunningham (Zulkanycz), 13:21. Penalties -- none.
Second period -- 5. Soldotna, Waters (Fellman, Urban), pp, 1:17; 6. Soldotna, Kerkvliet (Stinnett, Hegge), pp, 8:32; 7. Soldotna, Fellman (Waters), pp, 9:15. Penalties -- Soldotna 1 for 2:00; Kenai Central 6 for 12:00.
Third period -- 8. Soldotna, Waters (Endsley, Urban), sh, 4:24. Penalties -- Soldotna 4 for 8:00; Kenai Central 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal -- Soldotna 8-11-3--22; Kenai Central 6-3-13--22.
Goalies -- Granger (22 shots, 20 saves); Remsen (22 shots, 16 saves).
Power plays -- Soldotna 3 for 5; Kenai Central 0 for 3.
Stars 3, Mariners 1
Soldotna 1 0 2 --3
Homer 0 1 0 --1
First period -- 1. Soldotna, Urban (Stinnett), 2:26. Penalties -- Soldotna 2 for 4:00; Homer 1 for 2:00.
Second period -- 2. Homer, Merritt (Stage, Reutov), 12:01. Penalties -- Soldotna none; Homer 2 for 4:00.
Third period -- 3. Soldotna, Silver (Stinnett, Walton), 9:23; 4. Soldotna, Walton (Stinnett), 14:40. Penalties -- Soldotna none; Homer 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal -- Soldotna 11-6-13--30; Homer 14-9-8--31.
Goalies -- Pearson (31 shots, 30 saves); Sanarov (30 shots, 27 saves).
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