The Soldotna Stars came within a 10 minutes of winning the Region III hockey championship Saturday night. Despite losing 1-0 to Colony, the tournament's top seed, the Stars will play in next weekend's state championship tournament.
The Knights came out hard and tested SoHi goalie Kelly Gee early and often, forcing him to make three difficult saves within the first 90 seconds.
"Their first couple of lines came out flying," said Soldotna coach John Carlin. "We just had to get our defensive zone settled down."
Colony kept the action in the Soldotna zone for the majority of the game, clogging up the Stars' passing lanes in the neutral zone. As a result, Greg Strohmeyer, the Knights' goalie, did not see any action for the first 9:43.
Throughout the tough, fast and physical contest only two penalties were called.
Jake Luthi sat down at 6:16 of the second period after getting slapped with a high-sticking penalty.
On the ensuing power play, Soldotna put together its most consistent and prolonged attack, getting four shots, three of which Strohmeyer had to work very hard to keep out.
All in all, though, SoHi focused primarily on a dump-and-chase offense, only to be outskated by Colony's defenders.
Mainly fits and bursts the first 30 minutes, the game broke open in the third period. A half dozen end-to-end rushes resulted in padding both goalies' save percentages and thrilling the Soldotna Sport Center's capacity crowd.
The scoreboard saw its only change at 5:38 of the third when freshman Knight Jamie Bennett took an onsides pass from Chris Crosta and swooped to the midslot. Using a Soldotna defenseman as a screen, Bennett wristed the puck up over the right shoulders of both the defender and Gee.
Soldotna kept fighting, getting several more solid opportunities.
"We got our chances," Carlin said. "They were quality chances, too, not garbage from the outside. The puck didn't bounce our way."
After calling a timeout to rest and plan the strategy for the game's final minutes, Soldotna peppered Strohmeyer a couple more times. Almost continually, the Stars were stopped by a Colony defense that clung to attackers like seaweed.
Having pulled Gee with roughly a minute left, Soldotna seemed on the verge of forcing overtime.
With 17 seconds left, the game would be sealed, though.
At that point, the Stars got handed their only penalty, for having too many men on the ice. As the referee was informing the teams of the penalty, Colony captain John Cuzzocreo let out a yelp of excitement, knowing the title was won.
By finishing second in the region, Soldotna advances to the state tournament, which will also be held at the sports center.
Carlin said home ice advantage should be a boon to the Stars.
"It would have been better to go in as a No. 1 seed," he acknowledged. "(But) it's in our barn. We're sleeping in our own beds. Our own parents are going to be driving us to the games."
Another advantage is the support of the local spectators.
"It's not going to be a blowout filled tournament," he predicted. "It's going to be a good tourney, should be fun for the crowd."
Carlin also said the competition will be tighter than in some years past.
"Usually Anchorage is so dominant, it's almost frustrating," he said. "This year, it's a little more realistic than some years I coached.
"It's doable. It's just not going to be easy."
The Knights also will represent the region in the tournament, which will feature four teams from Anchorage and two from the Interior.
Earning first team all-region honors were Eric Newby, Dereck Martin and Joey Newby of SoHi, Skyview's Wayne Maxwell, Wasilla's Jon Schmelz, Palmer's Adam Riggs, Colony's Jake Luthi, Seth Reda and Nathan Schwartzbauer and Kenai's Nick Wirz, Jack Darsey and Brian Gabriel, Jr.
The all-region second team was made up of Brennan Coyle, Nate Tikka and Damean Polzin, of Skyview; Travis Parker, Jake Wright and Cory Hagbo, of Wasilla; Clint Belden and Luke Bishop, of Palmer; Adam Senta and Chris Cavanaugh, of Colony; and Kelly Gee and Todd Hanson, of Soldotna.
Belden and Gee also took places on the region's good sport team, for sportsmanship and leadership. Also so honored were Colony's Jeremiah Benson, Kenai's Boone Hall, Wasilla's Jordan Divis and Skyview's Justin Allen.
Colony's Luthi also was named Most Valuable Player. Skyview's Indy Walton nabbed the Coach of the Year plaque.
Knights 1, Stars 0
Soldotna 0 0 0 -- 0
Colony 0 0 1 -- 1
First period -- no scoring. Penalties -- none.
Second period -- no scoring. Penalties -- Soldotna 0 for 0:00; Colony 1 for 2:00.
Third period -- 1. Colony, Bennett (Crosta) 5:38. Penalties -- Soldotna 1 for 2:00; Colony 0 for 0:00.
Shots on goal -- Soldotna 5-5-7--17; Colony 13-6-9--28.
Power play opportunities -- Solodotna 0 for 1; Colony 0 for 1.
Goalies -- Soldotna, Gee (27 saves-28 shots); Colony, Strohmeyer (17 saves-17 shots).
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