While Kenai Central knows it's entering an uphill battle at the Class 4A state hockey tournament, stealing a game from the larger Anchorage schools is not an impossibility.
"The neat thing about tournaments is, something strange always happens," said Kenai head coach Pete Iverson. "It'd be fun to give them an upset."
The North Star Conference runner-up Kardinals take on Cook Inlet Conference champion West Anchorage today at 2:30 p.m. at the Curtis C. Menard II Memorial Ice Arena in Wasilla.
"We're definitely challenged with West," Iverson said.
The Kards haven't seen West this season, but based on games played against the same opponent, they know it will be a difficult contest. A Kenai Peninsula team has never won a first-round game at the state hockey tournament.
West shut out Palmer in two games this year, 10-0 and 6-0, whereas Kenai went 1-2 against the Moose. Palmer defeated Kenai 5-0 and 3-2 in overtime during the regular season. Kenai earned a 2-1 win over Palmer in the NSC semifinals last Friday.
The Kards are winless against the other state tournament contenders they've faced this season. Kenai dropped a pair of games to Dimond, 5-0 and 9-1, lost 8-2 to South Anchorage and suffered a 4-0 loss to Lathrop in the Peninsula Ice Challenge at the beginning of the season.
Defending state champion Lathrop plays South at noon today, Dimond and Mid-Alaska Conference champion West Valley square off at 5 p.m. and NSC champs Wasilla and East Anchorage drop the puck at 7:30 p.m.
For success, solid defense is essential, Iverson said.
"We've got to play very disciplined defense," he said. "We've got to play our system."
"We're going to have to play defensive against these teams," said Kards forward Zack Mese.
Getting traffic in front of the net is also important, said team captain Brady Perkins.
"Rebounds and crashing the net decides games," he said.
While the team was excited, some nervousness was in the atmosphere of the locker room at Tuesday's practice at the Soldotna Sports Center, Perkins said.
"The big schools are intimidating, but I feel we can pull off an upset," Perkins said. "We're going to have to play conservative and limit our mistakes." Capitalizing on opposing team's lapses will also be key, Perkins said.
Mese echoed Perkins' sentiments.
"I feel like we're gonna surprise a lot of them," he said of the Anchorage schools.
After defeating NSC second seed Palmer in the semifinals, Kenai fell to Wasilla 7-1 in the championship game on Saturday. The Kards cruised past Homer 9-1 in the opening round of the tourney on Thursday.
Teamwork propelled Kenai to victory in the NSC tournament, Iverson said.
"They played as a team. They played the entire game," he said.
Perkins said the team's intensity lifted it to a win over the Moose.
Selfless, too, is a virtue Kenai Central possesses.
"They kids are not selfish," Iverson said. "They build each other up."
Iverson said because his team is an underdog, it relieves all of the pressure.
"We have nothing to lose at state," he said. "The kids are realistic in their expectations, but they will fight with all they have to keep advancing."
Kenai is peeking late in the season and ready for the challenge at state, Mese said.
"We're just working as a team," he said. "It's all coming together now."
Mike Nesper can be reached at email@example.com.
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