Heading into conference and state tournaments, the trendy answer given by coaches asked by media to handicap the field is, "Anybody can beat anybody."
The answer is safe -- it offends nobody and won't end up on a bulletin board -- but often stretches credulity. Not so when it comes to the North Star Conference hockey tournament, which starts today at MTA Palmer Ice Arena.
"We're actually telling the truth this time," Soldotna coach Aaron Swanson said.
The parity of the conference was driven home on Saturday, when top-seeded Palmer, which had been 9-0 in the league, tied 2-2 at Brett Memorial Ice Arena in Wasilla with Colony, which has the No. 5 seed and finished 2-6-2 in the conference.
"I'm expecting to see some upsets," Kenai Central coach Pete Iverson said. "I hope it isn't us getting upset. There's been so many one-goal games this season, it's hard to call.
"Palmer's definitely a powerhouse, but they're ripe to get knocked out, too."
In winning their first nine league games, the Moose didn't exactly roll up blowouts. Palmer topped Wasilla 4-3 twice, and also defeated Kenai and Soldotna by 4-3 scores. The Moose recently defeated Homer, the No. 6 seed at 0-9-1, 2-0.
Homer coach Buck Laukitis said his squad is the best last-place team in the state.
"I think we've had our goalie pulled four times in the last six games trying to tie or win," Laukitis said. "That's indicative of how close it's been. We've lost by two, but it's been because we're right down there trying to tie it."
The Kenai Peninsula coaches all agreed that the reason for the close games is hockey's great equalizer -- superb goaltending.
"Every team has got good goalies this year," Iverson said. "A lot of times, it comes down to which of the goalies are having a better night."
The top two teams at the conference tournament advance to state. Palmer and Wasilla have first-round byes into Friday's semifinals. Today, Homer and No. 3 Soldotna (4-3-3) face off at 4:30 p.m., while No. 4 Kenai (5-5) and No. 5 Colony meet at 7 p.m.
The Mariners and Stars have met three times this season. Soldotna triumphed 3-0 on Nov. 4 and 3-1 on Saturday. On Dec. 7, the squads skated to a 1-all tie.
"Anybody is a scary team to face in the first round this year," Swanson said. "Some years, in the first-round game you kind of show up and go through the motions and be all right.
"This year you'd better show up and bring your 'A' game or you'll be going home."
The Mariners have been boosted by adding a total of five players from Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak Selo. An especially key addition has been goalie Alex Sanarov.
"He's supercompetitive and he keeps us in games we shouldn't be in," Laukitis said.
Defender Dennis Sanarov heads up the defense. Homer has been so tough to score on that Laukitis said if the Mariners had scored three goals each game, they would have lost just three games and tied some others.
Therein lies the rub.
Until scoring against Soldotna on Saturday, Laukitis said Homer had not scored in about five games. He said he's hoping the goal against the Stars will fire up the offense led by senior captain and forward Asa Stage.
"I've never seen any team so snakebitten," Laukitis said. "We had 25 or 30 shots a game and we didn't score multiple games in a row."
The Stars are not exactly the perfect team to break the opposition out of a scoring slump. William Granger has given up 1.80 goals per game, while Dawson Pearson is at 2.22.
"We've got two goaltenders who are seniors and they're both really good," said Swanson, who led his team to a conference title in 2009. "They've both had their ups and downs this year, but we feel like they've both gotten us here."
Zack Waters leads the team with 12 goals and 20 points.
"We're counting on everybody," Swanson said. "We need production from every guy -- nine forwards, four defensemen and two goaltenders."
The Stars go into the tournament as winners of three of their last four, with the one loss being the 4-3 setback to the Moose.
Iverson, who led his team to state last year with a runner-up finish at the conference tournament, saw his team go 3-0 against the Knights this year. The regular season ended on a sour note with a 6-2 loss to rival Soldotna on Friday.
The coach said the game was perfect for showing his team what happens when a squad loses discipline and mental toughness.
Iverson said Keegan Remsen has been a rock in net all year for the Kards. Remsen gives up 3.08 goals per game.
The top line of Morgan Cunningham, Zack Zulkanycz and Russ Dukowitz has been productive, with Cunningham leading the team with 15 goals and 26 points.
The coach would love secondary scoring from the line of Dylan Hendricks, Zack Mese and TJ Wagoner.
Iverson said Jake Iverson continues to improve on defense, while Avery Palchikoff, Matt Morse and James Bowen also play valuable minutes on defense.
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