It's getting harder and harder to rattle the Kardinals' cage.
The Skyview High School hockey team got a goal early, but the Panthers walked away shaking their heads after a 4-1 loss to Kenai Central High School in the opening round of the Region III/4A Championships at the Soldotna Sports Center Thursday.
"I've got to hand it to Nick Wirz," said Skyview coach Indy Walton. "He's so focused -- even on the rebound. You can count on him stopping the first shot, and he's big on the rebounds."
The Panthers did outshoot the Kardinals 23-21, and while Skyview did find the back of the net first -- a goal on a quick shot by Levi Erickson off a faceoff won by Nate Tikka 4:48 into the game -- it proved to be the only chink they could find in Wirz's armor.
The Kardinals tied the game with just under a minute left in the first period, and never looked back.
"We were pretty nervous" when Skyview scored first, said Kenai's Billy Johnson. "We knew as long as we tied it up by the second period, we would be pretty confident."
Owen Brewer provided the tying goal, picking the puck out of a scrum in front of Skyview netminder Mike Bell and flipping it home with a backhand shot.
"(The puck) just popped out," Brewer said. "I got kind of lucky because it squirted right through (Bell)."
Luke Haman netted the go-ahead goal for the Kardinals 8:26 into the second period on a Kenai power play.
Brain Gabriel Jr. started the play behind his own net and connected with Haman cutting across the blue line. Haman found a lane into the Panthers zone along the right wing, and swooped in front of the Skyview net, finishing off the rush with a pretty backhand shot.
"That's all we've been working on -- getting in shape and on our breakout," Johnson said. "Our power play has improved dramatically."
"We're starting to come together," said Kenai's Zack Hicks. "We're communicating pretty good."
Skyview nearly tied it up with less than a minute to go in the second period. Brennan Coyle won a puck at his own blue line and split the Kenai defense, but Wirz was able to turn aside the shot with a sprawling stick save.
Gabriel Jr. rattled a shot off the Skyview crossbar and out of play to open the third period, but Brewer won the ensuing faceoff for Ross Baldwin, who collected the puck in the left circle and skated into the slot before beating Bell with a backhand flick.
"The puck was just lying there and Ross walked in with it," Brewer said.
Gabriel Jr. set up the final goal of the evening, carrying the puck deep into the Skyview zone and managing to slide a pass in front of the net with one hand while holding off a Skyview defender with the other.
Brandon Fortney was waiting in the slot to drive Gabriel Jr.'s pass home with 12:28 left in the game.
Kenai had one more chance to put the Panthers away with about 10 minutes to go when Brewer was taken down on a breakaway and awarded a penalty shot. Bell was able to stay right with the puck, though, denying Brewer's backhand bid.
The Panthers continued to put pressure on Wirz through the first half of the third period, but Skyview lost some composure in the closing minutes and its attack broke down.
"Even when we went down 4-1, I thought we could pull it off -- until we got into the garbage at the end," Walton said. "Our guys got a little frustrated."
The Panthers were slapped with six penalties over the final 8:22, including a game misconduct to Erickson, hurting their chances for a comeback.
Walton was pleased with the play of Tikka and Wayne Maxwell, as well as Jesse Waltemyer and Mike Woodward.
Kenai now has the privilege to face top-seeded Colony tonight, with the puck scheduled to drop at 6:30 p.m., a challenge the Kardinals are looking forward to.
With the larger ice at the Soldotna Sports Center, the Kardinals just might be able to find some gaps the Knights just can't cover.
"They're pretty good," Johnson said, "but with what we've been working on, we should be all right."
KARDINALS 4, PANTHERS 1
Skyview 1 0 0 --1
Kenai 1 1 2 --4
First period -- 1. Skyview, Erickson (Tikka), 4:48; 2. Kenai, Brewer (Oberg, Baldwin), 14:07. Penalties -- none.
Second period -- 3. Kenai, Haman (Gabriel), 8:26. Penalties -- Skyview 1 for 2:00.
Third period -- 4. Kenai, Baldwin (Brewer), :35; 5. Kenai, Fortney (Gabriel), 2:32. Penalties -- Skyview 6 for 20:00, Kenai 4 for 8:00.
Shots on goal -- Skyview 5-8-10--23, Kenai 6-6-9--21.
Goalies -- Skyview, Bell (21 shots, 17 saves); Kenai, Wirz (23 shots, 22 saves).
Power play opportunities -- Skyview 0 for 1, Kenai 1 for 4.
Wasilla 3, Palmer 0
The third-seeded Warriors opened up the tournament with a win over No. 6 Palmer, earning the right to face Soldotna today at 3:15 p.m. in the semifinals.
"We're excited about it," said Wasilla assistant coach Matt Flora. "We're pretty psyched. It'll be a big game, Soldotna's tough to beat."
Wasilla got on the board in the first period with a goal from Lucas Hegg and assists going to Jake Wright and Aaron Sandone, but despite 44 shots on net, the Warriors could not find pay dirt again until the third period.
"We were a little nervous," Flora said. "We need to get a few more than that. Their goaltender played really well. Palmer's a totally different team than they were earlier this year. They were very competitive."
Steve Snelson made 41 saves for the Moose.
"I was pleased with the play of our goaltender -- for that matter, all of our seniors," said Palmer coach Brian Fish. "They showed a lot of class, and they never quit."
While the Moose never quite found the back of the net, they did ring a few shots off the pipes, including one that deflected off the crossbar with under a minute left to play.
"We had a lot of opportunities, but when the opportunities were there for us, we didn't take advantage of them," Fish said.
The Warriors gave themselves some breathing room with two goals in the third period.
Cory Hagbo scored on a slap shot from the right point that never left the ice, sneaking just inside Snelson's post with 11:57 on the clock. Robbie Velock assisted on the play.
Derek Underwood scored the final goal of the game, finding the back of the net with a quick wrist shot from just inside the left circle with 8:19 to play.
WARRIORS 3, MOOSE 0
Palmer 0 0 0 --0
Wasilla 1 0 2 --3
First period -- 1. Wasilla, Hegg (Wright, Sandone), 8:39. Penalties -- Wasilla 1 for 2:00.
Second period -- no scoring. Penalties -- Palmer 2 for 4:00, Wasilla 2 for 4:00.
Third period -- 2. Wasilla, Hagbo (Velock), 3:03; 3. Wasilla, Underwood (unassisted), 6:41. Penalties -- Palmer 1 for 2:00, Wasilla 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal -- Palmer 4-9-5--18, Wasilla 11-16-17--44.
Goalies -- Palmer, Snelson (44 shots, 41 saves); Wasilla, Erdman (18 shots, 18 saves).
Power play opportunities -- Palmer 0 for 5, Wasilla 0 for 3.
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