The U.S. men's hockey team doesn't hit the ice in Salt Lake until Friday. For those wishing to "light the fire within" before then, the Alaska School Activities Association State 4A Hockey Championship starts today.
When Soldotna qualified for the tournament two seasons ago and was paired up against Service High School in the opening round, the Stars were simply hoping to hang in there and maybe score an upset.
As the No. 2 seed from Region III, the Stars again will face Service, the top-seeded squad from Anchorage, at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Soldotna Sports Center in the opening round of this year's tournament.
But the Stars enter this tournament with a different mindset. Soldotna has been one of the top five teams in the state all season, and enters the tournament on a more level footing with the clubs from Anchorage.
"We know we can play with them -- all we have to do is give it all we got," Soldotna forward Anthony Murray said. "We've just got to come in and be ready. We're coming in with a positive outlook. It's a whole new tournament."
In other opening round games at the Sports Center Thursday, the West Valley Wolfpack opens the competition against the Chugiak Mustangs at 10 a.m., the Dimond Lynx play Lathrop at 1 p.m. and the Region III champion Colony Knights face East at 7 p.m.
Also Thursday, play in the Greatland Hockey Conference championship tournament commences at the Brett Memorial Ice Arena in Wasilla. The Nikiski Bulldogs draw the Houston Hawks in a 7 p.m. opening-round game. The Monroe Rams play the Glennallen Panthers at 2 p.m., the Tri-Valley Viking Warriors face the Kenny Lake Hawks at 4:30 p.m. and the Delta Junction Huskies draw a first-round bye by virtue of their first-place regular-season finish.
Nikiski coach Irv Smith said the Bulldogs are anxious to be back on the ice after a two-week layoff.
"We've been having some scrimmages, but that's just not the same as a game," Smith said. "We've just used the time to work on the things that we needed to. Our biggest goal right now is to get past Houston. I think we can play with anybody in our league. If (goalie) Nigel (Penhale) is on and has a good game, and we put a few pucks in the net, I feel pretty confident about it."
Smith said it's been a tale of two seasons for the Bulldogs this year.
"The improvement has been tremendous since Christmas break," Smith said. "It's been a different team. They seem to be playing together, they seem to be playing as a team. We've put together a couple of good games."
Smith said he's looking to seniors Todd Brigham, Chris Pepper and Penhale to provide a spark for the Bulldogs, and added that Brett Allemann has been playing well in his new role on defense.
Defense will be paramount for the Stars as they face a team with tremendous speed and depth in Service. To that end, Soldotna has instituted a new defensive scheme to counter the Cougars.
"We're switching to a defense that focuses on man-to-man coverage," said Soldotna goalie Egan Gleason. "We're focused on the speed and quick passing of Service."
Soldotna played Service before the Christmas break, dropping a 6-2 decision to the Cougars a night after losing a 3-2 heartbreaker to Dimond.
The Stars know they can't afford a letdown this time around.
"It's just going to take a big effort from all of us," Gleason said. "If we come out and play like we did against Dimond, they're beatable."
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