High school hockey begins its second season today at the Soldotna Sports Center, and while a Soldotna-Kenai Central matchup is anticipated in Friday's semifinals, the peninsula's Region III/4A teams need to make it through today's quarterfinals before setting their sights on a berth at the ASAA State 4A Championships next week.
If the brackets for this year's tournament seem familiar, they are -- the North Star Conference shook out this year in the same order as last season.
The only difference this year is the addition of Homer to the North Star Conference, and the No. 7 Mariners will face the No. 2 Soldotna Stars today at 11:15 a.m.
The fifth-seeded Skyview Panthers, this year's tournament hosts, face off with the No. 4 Wasilla Warriors today at 3:15 p.m. The Panthers took this game last season after tying the Warriors twice during the regular season.
Third-seeded Kenai meets No. 6 Palmer at 6:30 p.m. today.
Top-seeded Colony has a first-round bye and will face the Skyview-Wasilla winner in Friday's semifinals.
The top two teams from the tournament will join two teams from Region VI (Fairbanks) and four teams from Region IV (Anchorage) at the ASAA State 4A Hockey Championships Feb. 14, 15 and 16 at the Soldotna Sports Center.
"This is what we're playing all season for," said Kenai coach Brian Gabriel Sr. "It's kinda neat. Everyone goes in with a clean slate. Our focus is to go out there and play shift by shift."
Should the Kardinals make it past Palmer today, they likely would face the Stars for the fifth time this season in Friday's semifinals. At last year's tournament, the Kardinals pulled off an upset, beating the Stars to clinch a trip to the state tournament.
"In a way, we would rather have a chance for a SoHi-Kenai final -- that would be a good deal for hockey down here," Gabriel Sr. said. "Last year was a real emotional game. This year, the boys know they need to put that aside. We've played (Soldotna) four times, and gotten beat four times. Our idea is to look at where we can close the gap.
"We've gotta get by Palmer first. We don't want to look too far ahead in this tournament."
Gabriel Sr. said the Kardinals have been jelling as a team.
"When you go into a tournament, it's nice to know you can count on the guy next to you to go out and skate his hardest," Gabriel Sr. said. "You know that everybody is going to do their best for everyone else."
The Stars enter the tournament with plenty of confidence after beating Kenai and Skyview to finish off their regular season.
Stars coach Pat Nolden has plenty of respect for the Kardinals, though.
"They're fun to play. They're the epitome of a hard-working team," Nolden said after the Stars defeated the Kardinals Friday. "What Brian Gabriel does year in and year out with young kids is unbelievable."
Soldotna has been strong in all facets of the game of late with contributions from three forward lines, solid defensive pairings and a pair of top-notch goaltenders in Kenny Bishop and Egan Gleason.
"We have confidence we can score, which helps the defense relax a little bit. That helps them play better, instead of being tense," said Soldotna's Derek Martin. "We're just shooting and getting the rebound and crashing the net.
"We're pretty confident heading into regions, even though we did lose to Colony -- we know we can beat them."
Nolden said his squad anticipated a SoHi-Kenai semifinal.
"They're thinking about last year," Nolden said. "They've got a good understanding that if you lose, you go home."
The Panthers also enter the tournament feeling confident.
"I don't think we've peaked yet. We're still getting better every time we play," said Skyview coach Pete Iverson. "Hopefully, things will happen for us at the right time."
Part of the Panthers' slow progress this season has been due to midseason coaching changes, but Iverson said his squad has figured out what he wants to see them do.
"It always affects a team when you make a big change, and they've responded well," Iverson said. "There's always a little confusion. Even though I'm trying to build on coach (David) Waltemyer's program, I do some things different. They've had to adjust."
Iverson said the Panthers have been led by great efforts from Lukas Fellman, Jake Satathite and Taylor Adams of late.
"We haven't been able to beat Wasilla this year," Iverson said. "The last game we lost 4-0, but we outshot them by 10 shots, and the team wants it real bad."
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