A quick look at the North Star Conference high school hockey standings might lead one to believe that the Kenai Central Kardinals, owners of a 9-1 conference record, should be the favorites as the conference tournament kicks off today at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Kenai coach Brian Gabriel knows otherwise from first-hand experience.
"It's one of those deals where tournaments in hockey come down to goaltending a lot of times," Gabriel said, "so if your goaltender makes the saves he should make, and makes some he shouldn't make, you always have a chance."
Such was the case last Saturday, when the Soldotna Stars, fighting to get out of the NSC basement, handed the Kardinals their only conference loss of the season, 5-4 in overtime.
In that game, Kenai outshot Soldotna 48-15, but Stars goalie Jon Verhelst stopped 44 shots.
"We played a good game," Gabriel said. "We just ran into a hot goalie and they made some nice plays."
This weekend will give the conference's six teams one more chance to get hot and to qualify for the state tournament. Top-seeded Kenai and No. 2 Wasilla (8-2 in conference play) each earned a first-round bye.
Colony enters the tournament as the No. 3 seed with a 5-5 record, Soldotna's win over Kenai vaulted the Stars (3-7) into the fourth seed, and Palmer (2-7-1) is the fifth seed by virtue of a tie-break over Skyview (2-7-1).
Of course, records might as well be thrown out when it comes to tournament play. Very few conference games this season have been blowouts one- or two-goal games are the norm.
"I'm looking forward to (a close tournament)," said Skyview coach Pete Iverson. "It's always much more exciting when they're close games. The best thing we could do for high school hockey would be to have all the games decided by one goal."
Skyview opens tournament play today at 5:30 p.m. at the Sports Center against Colony while Soldotna faces Palmer at 8 p.m.
The Soldotna-Palmer winner plays Kenai Friday at 7:45 p.m. and the Colony-Skyview winner plays Wasilla at 5:15 p.m.
The winners of Friday's games advance to Saturday's 6:15 p.m. championship game and, more importantly, secure a spot for themselves in next week's state championship.
"(Colony) has beaten us both times we've played them, but we've played them well," said Skyview coach Peter Iverson. "We've got our work cut out for us."
Meanwhile, the Stars beat Palmer twice this season and last weekend's win has given the squad a big confidence boost.
"Hopefully, we can keep it up for another two weeks," said Soldotna coach Aaron Swanson. "Talent-wise, a lot of teams are better than us man for man, but as a team, we have the potential to be better than any team in the league."
In any case, coaches expect games to be close and the tournament to be competitive throughout. Gabriel said that last week, some friends who hadn't seen high school hockey before came to watch a game, and afterward, they said they wished they'd been clued in about the excitement a long time ago.
"It should be pretty exciting," Gabriel said of the upcoming tournament. "People who haven't seen hockey before should come catch some games. They'll be treated to some real intense hockey.
"It should be a real even tournament all the way through."
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