PALMER -- Colony head coach Jamie Smith said he felt pretty good about his team's performance Thursday. The Knights were physical, without taking a ton of penalties. Colony pressured the Kenai Central zone, and had a number of quality opportunities on net. But Kenai Central took advantage of a pair of quick Morgan Cunningham bursts and used solid goaltending to score a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Colony during the first day of the North Star Conference tournament at the MTA Palmer Ice Arena.
"We had a chance to really get after it, but this league is so tight," Smith said after the loss in the single-elimination tourney. "Make one mistake and you're toast."
Cunningham scored a goal and set up another to help the Kards move into the semifinal round, where they will face top-seeded Palmer tonight at 7 p.m. at the Palmer arena. Early in the first period, with the Kards trailing, Cunningham used his speed to create a short breakaway. Colony goalie Forrest Savel turned away that opportunity, but Kenai junior Zack Zulkanycz picked up the rebound, wrapped around the back of the goal and slipped the puck by Savel.
Late in the period, Cunningham chased down loose puck from a long Avery Palchikoff pass to create another short breakaway. This time, the senior captain used a quick move in front of the crease to beat Savel.
"His speed is deceptive," Kenai head coach Pete Iverson said of Cunningham. "It's doesn't look like he's working very hard, but guys are struggling to keep up with him."
Cunningham posted the game-winner, but the key goal came off the stick of Zulkanycz. The junior's wrap-around came less than a minute after Colony senior Darryl Belanger scored on the power play to give his team an early lead.
"It was huge," Iverson said. "That's the goal that breaks Colony's momentum."
The Knights were outshot 24-21 in the game, but both coaches felt Colony excelled offensively.
"Colony played an excellent offensive game," Iverson said. "They kept pressure on us the whole game."
Smith said that physical presence helped.
"Physically, we went after them, and that kind of helped us dictate the game," Smith said.
Senior Keegan Remsen was also solid in the Kenai net, coming through with 20 saves.
"He played outstanding," Iverson said. "He kept us in it."
Remsen also controlled rebounds for much of the contest.
"The biggest thing is we didn't create a lot of traffic in front," Smith said. "But, we played good."
Soldotna 2, Homer 1
Soldotna also scored a 2-1 win Thursday, edging Homer in the first quarterfinal.
Senior Zack Waters scored twice in the second period to eliminate the Mariners and send the Stars into a semifinal date with second-seeded Wasilla. SoHi faces Wasilla at 4:30 p.m. today. The winner advances to state, while the loser is eliminated.
"I'm glad we got to play today and I'm glad we got the win," SoHi coach Aaron Swanson said. "But we definitely have a lot more potential."
Homer took the early lead before watching its opponent score a pair of unanswered goals. Senior Asa Stage scored 25 seconds in the second period on the power play to give Homer the 1-0 lead.
Midway through the second, Matt Silver sent a pass across the zone to Waters. At the right wing circle, Waters turned toward the Homer net and fired a shot past Alex Sanarov.
Later in the period, the Soldotna duo hooked up again, this time on a shorthanded odd-man rush. Silver led the two-on-one break down the ice after picking up a loose puck in the neutral zone, sending a pass by a diving Homer defenseman to Waters, who buried the puck.
Swanson said goalie Dawson Pearson was Soldotna's player of the game. He made 23 saves.
"He was the best player on the ice," Swanson said.
For the Mariners, it was the fourth time in six games they pulled their goalie while trying to get the equalizer in the dying moments.
Although the squad finished winless, coach Buck Laukitis said the program is close to turning the corner.
"Developing a winning program is a process," he said. "We are so close now. I hope the team comes back dedicated. We're already thinking about what we need to work on."
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at email@example.com. The Clarion staff contributed to this report.
North Star Conference Championships
at MTA Palmer Ice Arena
Stars 2, Mariners 1
Homer 0 1 0 --1
Soldotna 0 2 0 --2
First period -- no scoring.
Second period -- 1. Homer, Stage (unassisted), pp, 14:35; 2. Soldotna, Waters (Silver), 12:18; 3. Soldotna, Waters (Silver), sh, 1:29.
Third period -- no scoring.
Shots on goal -- Homer (7-12-5--24); Soldotna (9-9-10--28).
Goalies -- Homer, Sanarov (28 shots, 26 saves); Soldotna, Pearson (24 shots, 23 saves).
Kardinals 2, Knights 1
Colony 1 0 0 --1
Kenai Central 2 0 0 --2
First period -- 1. Colony, Belanger (McJimsey, Naylor), pp, 9:18; 2. Kenai Central. Zulkanycz (Cunningham), 8:28; 3. Kenai Central, Cunningham (Palchikoff, Bowen), 4:19.
Second period -- no scoring.
Third period -- no scoring.
Shots on goal -- Colony (9-6-6--21); Kenai Central (9-7-8--24).
Goalies -- Colony, Savel (24 shots, 22 saves); Kenai Central, Remsen (21 shots, 20 saves).
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