There will be favorites, but there will be no givens when the North Star Conference hockey tournament comes to the Soldotna Sports Center today, Friday and Saturday.
“It should be a great tournament,” Soldotna coach Aaron Swanson said. “The thing about the tournament this year is everybody is beatable. That makes it interesting.”
The tournament favorite is defending tournament champion Wasilla. The Warriors had a 10-2 record in the NSC this year, with one loss coming to No. 2 seed Colony and the other loss a forfeit to Homer.
An indication of the closeness of the top teams is that Soldotna and Kenai defeated Colony this season, while Homer earned a tie against the Knights.
“They have a very well-rounded squad,” Kenai coach Nate Kiel said of the Warriors. “They have a deep team and they’re talented, and that’s why they have the best record and are the favorite going in.
“There’s more parity in the conference than in several years. There could be several different teams in the final matchup.”
The two teams that make the championship on Saturday also earn a berth to the state tournament the following week.
Today’s action starts with No. 7 seed Palmer against Colony at 3:30 p.m. No. 3 seed Kenai and No. 6 Skyview face off at 5:45 p.m., while No. 4 Soldotna and No. 5 Homer drop the puck at 8:15 p.m.
Kenai swept the season series with the Panthers, but on Friday the Kardinals needed overtime for a 2-1 victory. Kenai also defeated Skyview 6-3 in mid-November, but that was Skyview’s first game of the year after the Panthers’ first eight games were canceled due to lack of eligible players.
Skyview coach Pete Iverson, whose team also notched a victory over Homer Saturday, said his team has hung together through a tough season.
“We were just a breath away from the season being over,” Iverson said.
Friday, the Panthers rallied around a spectacular performance by goalie Gabe O’Lena.
“We had a good game with them last time,” Iverson said. “The kids are looking forward to playing Kenai again. It will definitely be an uphill battle for our team, but they’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Kenai, which will be seeking its fifth state berth in the last six years, will be helped by the return of Stephen Cronkhite and Michael Drobnick to the lineup. Injured Brad Fusaro also could give the Kardinals a spark, but it is not known if he will play.
“Skyview is obviously not to be taken lightly,” Kiel said. “They have a solid core group of players. They’re not a big team in terms of overall size or depth, but neither are we.”
Homer and Soldotna split in NLC action, with Soldotna taking a 6-2 decision at the Sports Center and Homer winning 3-2 on the much smaller rink in Homer.
The Stars have been peaking lately, beating Kenai and Skyview last week after a 2-1 trip to the Matanuska-Susitna valleys the week before. Soldotna is seeking its first state berth since 2003.
Soldotna did lose Kevin Laurion, one of two seniors on the team and the second-line center the last three years, to a season-ending shoulder injury Saturday against Kenai.
Swanson said the loss puts more leadership responsibility on senior and leading scorer Brian Herring, but also puts more pressure on the young players on the team to step up.
“I’m really excited with where we are at,” Swanson said. “It’s been a long season taking some time to develop younger players, but it’s gotten to the point where it seems like it’s paying off.”
Homer coach John Butcher said his team has achieved better results on the smaller ice in Homer than the bigger ice at the Sports Center. Butcher also said his team does have the ability to win on the bigger ice.
“We skated with (Soldotna) both times and played them fairly well,” Butcher said. “To have a good chance, we’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game.”
This is Homer’s first time in the NSC tournament since 2002. The Mariners were blown out in the first round that year, but Homer’s 5-6-1 mark in the NSC this year shows how far the program has come.
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