As Tuesday’s practice at the Soldotna Sports Center was winding down, Kenai players repeatedly fired shots at goalie Lauren Baldwin.
Owen Dukowitz took it one step further when he flipped the puck into the air and took a baseball-like swing, batting it past the senior netminder.
“Just goofing off,” Dukowitz said afterward.
Well, when you’re hot, sometimes nothing can stop you.
And he’s not the only one.
Winners of their last eight games, the Kardinals are hoping that trend continues when they play Service in the opening round of the 4A State Tournament at 10:30 a.m. today at the Wasilla Sports Complex.
“We couldn’t be playing better,” said senior Jed McGlasson, who netted a hat trick in propelling Kenai to a 4-2 victory over Wasilla in Saturday’s North Star Conference championship contest.
Outscoring their opponents 46-15 over the recent winning streak, every facet of the Kardinals’ play is clicking at precisely the right time.
All 50-point scorers, McGlasson, Dukowitz and Brad Fusaro make up one of the fastest and most explosive front lines in the state, starting senior defensemen Stephen Cronkhite and Justin Gabriel are stiffening with each period and, most importantly, Baldwin is allowing only 2 1/2 goals a game since Christmas break.
“She’s playing hot and she’s consistent,” said Kenai coach Nate Kiel. “That’s the good news about Lauren is if she lets in a goal she doesn’t let it get to her. She’ll come right back and play good, solid hockey.”
But romping through the conference with an unblemished 15-0 mark is one thing.
Going 2-4-1 against non-conference opponents this season is another.
They now find themselves up against a Cougars’ squad who finished 7-7 in the Cook Inlet Conference, which is sending four teams to the big dance.
“It’s tough. They’re the big teams. They’re the big guns. That’s no secret,” Kiel said. “Anchorage has the powerhouse region. But we have beaten some of those teams in the past and this year.”
One of those monumental victories came last season when the Kardinals (17-4-1) edged Service for the first time ever.
“We didn’t lose a whole lot. We lost a few key people, but we didn’t lose big numbers of people (from) last year,” Kiel said. “So, we have the whole nucleus back. I think that hopefully we did it last year, we can do it again this year.”
However, history is not on Kenai’s side.
While this will be the Kardinals’ fifth trip to state, with their best finish being sixth from 2003-05, no peninsula team has ever captured a victory in the first-round of the state tournament.
“Hopefully we’ll break that curse this year,” McGlasson said. “We all know we can beat them. We just want to keep doing something that Kenai’s never done before.
“Going 15-0 in conference, that was like our biggest thing of the year. And winning regions was our really big goal,” he added. “Now, it’s just to see how good we can do overall.”
Owning a less-than-impressive 13-11-1 record, Service may still be one of the better fourth-seeded teams to emerge from the Anchorage area in a while.
Having used overtime in defeating highly-favored Chugiak, 3-2, in the conference finals, the Cougars possess the big-game experience the Kardinals lack.
Despite missing the tournament the past two seasons, they’ve played in eight of the 11 state championship contests since 1996, winning five titles and three straight from 2002-04.
“This group here has pulled of some huge feats over the years, including wins over Chugiak and wins over Service and wins over East again this year and Bartlett,” Kiel explained. “And so they have done some things that are pretty remarkable playing with the big guns.”
If they win, in all likelihood the Kardinals will take on undefeated and two-time defending state champion South in the second round on Friday at 3:15 p.m.
“It seems like we have as good of an opportunity as any team to go and have our best finish ever. That’s the goal,” Kiel said. “Anything can happen. I don’t want to speculate past our first-round game, but even South has had trouble with certain teams ... at times.”
He’s not the only one who thinks they have a decent shot, though.
“I know we can. Jed knows we can. Owen knows we can,” Fusaro said. “We’ve just got to get the whole team to believe.”
It seems as if they already do.
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