The North Star Conference title is anyone's championship to win -- literally.
Kenai Central has swept Homer and Soldotna, split with Colony and been swept by Wasilla and Palmer. Palmer's two conference losses came against Wasilla and SoHi. The Stars beat Homer twice, were swept by Wasilla and beat and tied Colony. The Knights lost to Homer, and everyone has been beaten by Wasilla, but not by much.
The Warriors are 9-1-0 in conference play and enter today's tournament as the top seed. Their lone NSC loss came after Wasilla was forced to forfeit a win over Palmer after inadvertently allowing an ineligible player to participate in the game.
Wasilla and the second-seeded Moose (8-2-0) earned first-round byes.
Fourth-seeded SoHi (4-5-1) takes on fifth-seeded Colony (2-7-1) today at 2 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Tournament host and third-seeded Kenai (5-5-0) will face off against sixth-seeded Homer (1-9-0) at 4:30 p.m. The two teams finished their regular seasons against one another Saturday, with the Kardinals cruising to an 8-2 win.
Though the win claimed the third seed for Kenai, it's already out of the team's mind.
"We have to approach it one game at a time," Kards head coach Pete Iverson said. "There's always a surprising upset, and I don't want that to be us."
Mariners head coach Buck Laukitis knows his team could provide the shocking upset.
"The kids know they can play some pretty good hockey," he said. "We're capable of the surprise."
Laukitis, too, isn't worrying about the scoresheet from his team's recent meeting with Kenai.
"On paper we shouldn't be able to compete," he said. "But high school athletics is cool, because it doesn't always go that way."
Even in the loss to Kenai, Laukitis said his team played a solid two periods of hockey.
"My guys go out and play hard," Laukitis said. "We spend a lot of time on staying positive."
Homer's main problem is a lack of players, Laukitis said.
"We're five guys away from being even with everybody else," he said.
The key to success in the conference tournament is discipline, Iverson said.
"This tournament is going to be won by the team that has the least number of penalties," he said.
Stars head coach Aaron Swanson and Laukitis said games will be won between the pipes.
"Really it's going to come down to what teams are playing well, that's going to start with good goaltending," Swanson said.
The parity in the NSC is no surprise to Swanson.
"The games have all been really close," he said. "It's really anyone's tournament."
Palmer and Wasilla have the advantage due to first-round byes, but by no means have stamped their ticket to the state tourney, Swanson said.
"We can beat those guys or anybody else we have to play," he said.
"Nobody's going into this thinking they'll be a shoo-in," Iverson said. "Whoever is on their A game will be coming out ahead. The least-seeded team has as much a chance as anyone in this tournament."
Success for SoHi will stem from solid play in its own zone.
"Our strength lies in the defensive side of the ice," Swanson said. He said the Stars need to control and minimize opposing teams' scoring chances.
"We've got to stay focused, not let the little things get to us," said Stars senior Josh Harvey.
"It just depends on how we come out," SoHi freshman Jonas Perletti said. "We have to play all three periods."
"We just need to put pucks on net," Stars goaltender Dawson Pearson said.
A strong start and staying out of the penalty box are essential for Kenai's success, Iverson said.
Kards forward Zack Zulkanycz said his squad needs to play as a team.
"We can't let anything stop us," he said. "We need to play to win."
"Whoever wants it the most is going to win," said Kenai captain Brady Perkins. "We're just going to have to go out hard the entire time."
Homer needs superb goaltending from Luke Eckert for an upset over Kenai, Laukitis said. But defeating the Kards is no easy task.
"Kenai is playing as well as anybody," Laukitis said. "They're well-coached and they're cohesive.
"If we can beat Kenai, we can probably beat anybody."
If there's one thing Homer isn't lacking, it's work ethic.
Out of Laukitis' four years at the helm of Mariners hockey, this is the most coachable group he's had, he said.
"They're not self-defeating," Laukitis said. "They play their hardest."
Kenai, which dropped its first three games of the season at the Peninsula Ice Challenge in early November, is a much-improved team. The biggest factor behind the improvement is trust, Iverson said.
"They have more confidence in each other," he said. "The team is trusting each other to do their jobs."
"Our team is playing together well," Zulkanycz said. "We've figured out the systems."
"We just picked up the intensity a lot at the end," Perkins said. "I think we're coming in strong."
"We're actually moving the puck around," said Kards defenseman Gradey Iverson. "Everyone is trusting each other with the puck."
Mike Nesper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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