Kenai Central's 2-1 win over Palmer in the North Star Conference tournament semifinals earned the Kards a date with Wasilla in the championship. It punched Kenai's ticket to the state tournament, too. But it will also keep Kenai's 2009 small-schools state championship football team at bay -- at least for a week.
"We had to win to keep the football players off our backs," Kards goaltender Keegan Remsen said jokingly after the win on Friday. "We just really wanted this game."
Kenai and Wasilla will represent the NSC in the state tournament, which begins Thursday at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
Going to state was a goal at the beginning of the season, and the team is excited to have achieved that goal, Kenai head coach Pete Iverson said.
"It gives us another week of hockey," he said with a smile.
Palmer's Dylan Danielowski cut Kenai's 2-0 lead in half midway through the third period. Danielowski stood at the top of Remsen's crease. Stephen Acher made a pass to Danielowski and he put the puck over Remsen's glove.
The Moose pulled their goaltender, Jonas Naegele, with 1:15 to play. But the Kards prevented Palmer from generating prime scoring chances with the extra attacker.
"The boys stepped up to the challenge," Iverson said. He said his team controlled Palmer's attack in the final five minutes of the game.
With about a minute to play, Kenai's Justin Herrmann took the puck deep into Palmer's zone, eating valuable time off of the clock. Brady Perkins later threw the puck the length of the ice, missing the empty net and was whistled for icing with 7.5 seconds left. Herrmann won the faceoff and Zack Mese cleared the puck and time expired -- or so Kenai thought.
As the Kards celebrated the win, Palmer's bench argued that time remained when the puck crossed the goal line, which would give the Moose an offensive zone faceoff. But the referees ruled the game was over.
Palmer head coach Brad Hanson said the questionable call at the end of the game wasn't the deciding factor.
"We had 45 minutes to win the game," he said.
The tight game was no surprise to Kenai.
"We definitely thought this was going to be a close game," Remsen said.
The Kards went to overtime in three games this season -- losing to Colony and Palmer, and beating Soldotna.
When the Moose scored, Iverson flashed back to the 3-2 overtime loss to Palmer on Jan. 21. The Kards were leading by one, but the Moose tied the game and won it in extra time.
"It was deja vue from the last time we played them," he said.
Having played in close games this season, the team remained calm and knew what it had to do, Remsen said.
"They don't panic so much in the last few minutes, knowing it's a one-goal game," Iverson said. "In a 2-0 game, it's not over until the whistle blows."
Palmer was dealt a devastating blow when their top player Ivan Good was given a two-minute minor and a 10-minute misconduct for checking from behind with 10:40 to play in the game.
"It's difficult when you have your leading scorer out," Hanson said. Despite losing Good, Hanson said his team still generated chances to tie the game.
"I thought we were in the hunt the whole way," he said. "We had opportunities to score and didn't do it. The puck just didn't bounce where we needed it tonight."
Kenai's Morgan Cunningham started the scoring in the first period. Zack Zulkanycz put a shot on net. Naegele made the save but Cunningham slid the rebound past the Palmer net minder.
Truckee LeMay provided the two-goal cushion heading into the third. Late in the second period, the Kards were on the power play. Tyler Cue carried the puck into Palmer's zone down the right side of the boards. He threw a pass to a streaking LeMay, who buried a backdoor one-timer past Naegele.
Remsen turned away 27 of 28 shots faced. Half of those came in the second period. Naegele stopped 28 of 30 total shots.
Palmer had an opportunity to tie the game with back-to-back power plays in the second period. With Herrmann in the box for interference, Palmer's Piers LaFrance ripped a shot from the slot, which Remsen denied. He followed with a blocker save on a shot from the point.
"I stayed on my toes," Remsen said of the consecutive Palmer power plays. "I just kept focus."
"Keegan kept us alive," Iverson said.
Nine seconds after Herrmann stepped out of the box, Matt Morse was penalized. Acher broke in on Remsen untouched from Kenai's blue line. He deked to his left but Remsen made the save with his right leg pad.
Despite the loss, Hanson said he was proud of his team's effort and with the improvement he saw throughout the year.
Iverson liked the teamwork Kenai displayed.
"The whole team supported each other really well," he said.
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