The North Star Conference Region III/4A hockey tournament begins today at Brett Memorial Ice Arena in Wasilla with teams from Skyview and Kenai Central high schools taking the ice in opening-round games.
North Star Conference Hockey Tournament
Thursday, Friday and Saturday
at Brett Memorial Ice Arena, Wasilla
No. 3 Kenai vs. No. 6 Palmer, 5:30 p.m.
No. 4 Wasilla vs. No. 5 Skyview, 7:45 p.m.
Kenai-Palmer winner vs. No. 2 Soldotna, 5:30 p.m.
Wasilla-Skyview winner vs. No. Colony, 7:45 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 7 p.m.
Top two teams qualify for ASAA State 4A Hockey Championships, Feb. 15, 16 and 17 at Soldotna Sports Center.
Higher seeded team in each game will assume privileges of home team, including "last change" and home sweater color.
The third-seeded Kardinals open the tournament against the sixth-seeded Palmer Moose at 5:30 p.m. while the No. 5 Panthers will play the fourth-seeded Wasilla Warriors at 7:45 p.m.
The top-seeded Colony Knights and the second-seeded Soldotna Stars earned a first-round bye for their regular-season efforts.
"There's gotta be a winner this time," Skyview coach Indy Walton said, referring to the Panthers' two ties in their season meetings with the Warriors.
"We'll keep going to overtimes if we have to, and that could very well happen. Both teams are pretty well balanced. It's going to come down to defense and goaltending."
Mike Bell has been minding the goal for the Panthers, and Walton was pleased to see him save better than 90 percent of the shots he faced against Soldotna in Skyview's regular-season finale.
Walton also was excited about the play of Wayne Maxwell and Mike Woodward on the forward line.
"These guys are hoping we get a chance (to play Colony in the semifinal)," Walton said. "In year's past, we'd be excited about the first game but not necessarily about the second. Our game with Wasilla should be an exciting game."
Stars coach Pat Nolden is anticipating another meeting with Kenai in the other Friday semifinal, but Kardinals coach Brian Gabriel Sr. doesn't want his team looking past Thursday's game with Palmer.
"We seem to have one bad game a year, and last year it was against Palmer," Gabriel Sr. said. "The main thing is to get through Thursday."
Should the Kardinals advance, they'll battle the Stars for the fifth time this season in the close confines of Brett Arena.
"The smaller ice will probably benefit us because it won't allow them to free-wheel," Gabriel Sr. said. "They're good at finding the open spaces -- that's how Mike McIntosh scored his goal against us last week, by slipping into an open spot. Smaller ice will make it more difficult to do that."
The Kardinals juggled their lines for last weekend's games against Skyview and Soldotna with positive results. Adrian Borchgrevink moved to center on a line with Ross Baldwin and Mike Brown while Hunter Sirois and Boone Hall now skate with center Owen Brewer.
Brewer's line has continued to create scoring chances while the Borchgrevink line accounted for five goals in two games.
"We were going through a period where we weren't scoring goals, and the kids were uptight," Gabriel Sr. said. "Now the kids seem to be having fun. We've had upbeat practices all week, and they seem pretty loose."
Gabriel Sr. expects to have a full roster of players at his disposal, including defenseman Jack Darsey, who has regained his eligibility, and Borchgrevink, who survived a minor medical problem Tuesday and is ready to skate today.
"No excuses," Nolden said. "We're healthy, they're healthy. Let's drop the puck and play hockey."
A win on Friday for the Stars gives them a shot at four more games -- Saturday's conference championship and as many as three games at the state tournament.
"They understand that, but I don't think they feel any pressure," Nolden said of what he calls a young team. "They're ready to travel. They're ready to go to the tournament. The coach feels all the pressure."
Nolden said the key for the Stars will be to play aggressive hockey from the opening whistle.
"We need all three lines to come out and play aggressive and put some shots on net," Nolden said. "We need to be aggressive on faceoffs. If you can win the majority of the faceoffs, that can get you 10 more shots on net."
Nolden plans to start Kelly Gee in goal.
"He's played Kenai three times and given up two goals in three games. It's going to be a low-scoring game, so he needs to be sharp," Nolden said.
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. 15, 16 and 17 at the Soldotna Sports Center.
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