A lethal front line comprised of 50-point scorers, Kenai seniors Jed McGlasson, Brad Fusaro and Owen Dukowitz, has provided a majority of the Kardinal’s offense this season though coach Nate Kiel still maintains it’s his defense that can alter the game.
Entering today’s North Star Conference tournament at Palmer Arena with the top seed and an unblemished conference record, Kenai’s been set on cruise control for close to three weeks now, having won six in a row by a comfortable 36-12 margin.
While the goals continue to pile up, it’s been the play of senior goalie Lauren Baldwin and starting senior defensemen Stephen Cronkhite and Justin Gabriel that has sparked the recent run of domination.
“If they step up and play the way they have been playing and that they’re capable of, they’re going to lead our team,” Kiel said of Cronkhite and Gabriel. “They’re kind of the unsung heroes of the team.
“Lauren Baldwin’s played great for us all year,” he added. “She’ll anchor our defensive efforts between the pipes.”
Finishing 15-4-1 overall and 10-0 in the conference, Kiel knows his team is marked. But with an ever-improving defense, he doesn’t expect the results to change.
“When it comes down to tournament time, even offensive teams need to play good defensive hockey in all zones on the ice,” he explained. “Our offense is going to take care of itself. They’ve usually scored at least three or four goals per game, especially against region opponents.
“We’re confident in our offensive abilities,” Kiel added. “The way our senior defensemen have been playing, we’ll be fine.”
Earning a bye in the first round, the Kardinals will play the winner of tonight’s matchup of fourth-ranked Palmer and fifth-seeded Homer, slated to begin at 5:45 p.m.
Having already beaten Palmer twice and the Mariners three times including a tight 3-2 decision on Monday night Kenai has a good shot at capturing the conference tournament title and advancing to state for the first time in two years, when the Kardinals went 1-2 after having their momentum dashed in the conference finals.
“I think the core group remembers two years ago, our heartbreaking loss in the region championship to Wasilla,” Kiel said. “We had dominated the whole season, 9-0-1, and yet we outshot Wasilla” and lost 2-1.
“I think they remember that,” he added. “They want to go out in style and do everything they can to play well and advance as far as they can in region and in state.”
Homer coach Ken Castner believes his team’s one-goal setback to Kenai should serve as a major confidence boost.
“Everybody down here in Homer said that was the best game of the year,” he said. “We’re peaking at the right time and I’m looking for a fun time up there at the conference.”
Having split the season series with Palmer with one win apiece, the Mariners (9-11, 3-7) have a decent chance of meeting Kenai in the semifinals.
“I would have to say that Kenai is not only the favorite here, but they’re going to do well in states unless they get upset by a team like Homer,” Castner said with a laugh.
And Soldotna coach Aaron Swanson is aware of that.
Owning a 6-4 conference record, the third-ranked Stars will take on sixth-seeded Colony tonight at 8:15 p.m. Despite beating the Knights 4-1 and 5-1 earlier this season, Swanson isn’t taking anything for granted.
“We’re confident, but by the same token, we’re realistic,” he said. “One of their best players was out most of the season with a shoulder injury.
“We’re expecting a big challenge from them,” Swanson added. “We’re very aware of what their lineup is going to look like versus what it looked like the last time we played them. We’re expecting them to be a lot tougher.”
SoHi, however, is also more formidable and is coming off a 2-1 victory over Homer on Saturday night.
“We’ve definitely noticed the improved play on our team and we’re real happy with the development we’ve seen out of the kids. But all the other teams are developing as well,” Swanson said. “We’re hoping the level we’re at at this point is that much higher than where anyone else is at.”
If the Stars defeat Colony, they’ll play No. 2 Wasilla which has topped SoHi twice this season on Friday night. A win in that contest would send them to state and could set up the fifth meeting of the season between Soldotna and Kenai, a series the Kardinals have swept thus far.
“We fully expect them to get to the championship,” Swanson said of the Kardinals. “We’re hoping to make it an all-Peninsula final.”
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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