The Kenai Central hockey team has two first-round opponents tonight at Class 4A state hockey tournament: Anchorage's West High and history.
The Kardinals will skate against the Eagles at 7 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center. They will also skate against this fact: No team from the Kenai Peninsula has ever won a first-round game at the Class 4A tournament.
"Everybody's thinking about that," said Kenai junior forward Dustin Moore.
The reason for the peninsula's failure in first-round games is the dominance of Anchorage on the Alaska hockey scene. The tournament favorite is Anchorage's Service, which has a 21-1-1 record and has won the last two state titles.
Many times at state, the four Anchorage teams all win their first-round games and turn state into a repeat of the Anchorage High School Hockey Association tournament of the week before.
Moore said the reason for Anchorage's dominance is depth of talent. Most of the Anchorage schools check in at over 2,000 students, while the Kardinals place their enrollment at about 500.
This disparity in depth gives Anchorage the advantage later in games.
Last year at state, both Kenai and Soldotna had good runs in the first round. The Stars took Dimond to four overtimes before dropping an exhausting 2-1 decision.
Kenai was leading East 2-1 after the first period, but didn't have the depth for the second and third periods and lost 5-3. After the game, East coach Jon Lamebull attributed the victory to East having three dangerous lines and Kenai having one.
This year the Kardinals (17-6-1) return to state for the third time in four years looking to break the peninsula's first-round hex.
"Absolutely," Kenai coach Brian Gabriel said. "That is the goal."
As last year's close losses in the first round attest, the peninsula is getting closer to fielding a team that can get past the first round.
"Peninsula programs have come a long way in the past five or six years," said Gabriel, who has headed up Kenai for seven years. "We're matching up now better than we have at any time before.
"In the past, maybe we'd have a good goalie, but we wouldn't be able to score goals. Or vice versa. This year, all the components are in place."
When Gabriel took over the Kenai program, the Kardinals had never been to state and had never won a North Star Conference Championship.
Now, such goals are old hat. The Kardinals took their second straight conference crown this year. Last year, the Kardinals even won a state tournament game for the first time, topping Lathrop to reach the fourth-place game.
"We're not happy to be here just to fill our slot," Gabriel said. "We said from the first day of practice that our goal is to win state.
"We've won region championships. Now, we have to take that next step up."
Kenai played West in mid-January and lost 3-1 in an evenly played game. West posted 21 shots to Kenai's 20, and the Kardinals hit a post or crossbar in each period of play.
Unlike last year, this year Gabriel feels he has the depth to sustain attacks against Anchorage teams and end up close in the shots-on-goal category.
"Last year, only the (Owen) Brewer line could score," Moore said. "The rest of the lines could keep the puck out of our net, but they couldn't score.
"This year, we have three lines that can score."
Gabriel also said Kenai has two solid goaltenders and has improved its defense and power play since last year.
The coach also thinks the Kardinals will not be intimidated by West.
"A lot of it is psychological," Gabriel said. "Our teams will figure out they can skate with these Anchorage teams in the second or third period, but by then they'll already be down by six goals.
"We have about five skaters who've played Midget A hockey in Anchorage, so they know they can skate with Anchorage players."
Gabriel also looks forward to the home-ice advantage.
"We have the prime-time game," Gabriel said. "Hopefully, we can get a big crowd in here pulling for us."
Homer, Nikiski gear up for Greatland Tournament
The Homer and Nikiski hockey teams will begin play in the Greatland Hockey Conference Tournament Thursday at the Brett Memorial Ice Arena is Wasilla.
Homer, the No. 2 seed, takes on Kenny Lake at 7 p.m. The Bulldogs will face Delta Junction at 4:30 p.m. Houston, which went undefeated in the Greatland regular season and has won the last three Greatland Tournaments, has a first-round bye.
Homer coach Elliott Jackson, whose team finished up its regular season with a pair of victories over Nikiski Friday and Saturday, said Delta Junction, Monroe Catholic and his team are all good teams trying to take down the powerhouse Hawks.
"This is a real good conference," Jackson said. "A couple teams in this conference could easily play 4A."
Earlier in the season, the Hawks played North Star Conference champion Kenai to a 2-2 tie.
"I think Houston is beatable," said Homer forward Justin Adams. "We're hoping they come in too overconfident and cocky."
The Bulldogs finished third at the Greatland Tournament last year for the best finish in school history. This year, the Bulldogs finished 2-10 in the Greatland regular season and would have to pull off a couple of upsets to match last year's finish.
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