Things are coming together for the Nikiski High School hockey team.
The Bulldogs notched their first victory victory of the season Thursday at the Soldotna Sports Center, downing the visiting Monroe Rams 4-3.
"The biggest difference in this game was that we finally got our offensive and defensive systems in place," said Nikiski's Quincy Bird. "In our first two games, we skated hard, but there were a lot of times when kids just didn't know where they were supposed to be."
The Bulldogs found themselves in the right spots at the right times at both ends of the ice in Thursday's game as they were able to muster an answer every time Monroe put a point on the board.
"We cycled the puck well and did an excellent job with our forecheck," said Nikiski coach Irv Smith. "Most of the game was played at the other team's end of the ice -- that's how you pick up the win."
And at their own end of the ice, the Bulldogs have found a solid backstop in second-year skater Nigel Penhale.
Penhale made several key saves for the Bulldogs, coming up with big stops at crucial moments to keep his side either tied or in the lead.
"He stopped a lot of quality shots," Smith said.
Penhale made a sprawling save on a breakaway to open the third period, and was able to hold his ground as the Rams looked to equalize late in the game.
"You couldn't ask for more from a second-year skater," Bird said.
Penhale is just happy to be considered a skater, having strapped on the skates for the first time a year ago.
"I'm getting some skating skills down," Penhale said, crediting former Soldotna netminder Matt Haman with helping him learn the position.
"I was really nervous in the first two games, but I'm starting to feel confident. I play better when I'm confident. When I get nervous, the goals start to go in."
Penhale's confidence has given the rest of the Bulldogs a boost.
"Knowing that he'll be back there to make the save has let us be a little more aggressive out there," said Nikiski defenseman Seth Tauriainen. "Nigel's consistency is a big thing."
The combination of a solid backstop and good forecheck led to Nikiski's last two goals.
The first came during a four-on-four situation late in the second period when the Bulldogs' pressure forced the Rams to ice the puck.
With the faceoff in the Monroe zone, Nikiski worked the puck behind the net, then out in front to poke it past the Rams goalie.
Monroe tied the game at 3 with seven minutes left in third period, scoring on a shot from the high slot that beat Penhale over his shoulder.
Nikiski scored the game-winner with 4:45 left in the game on a shot from the right point by Ryan Cowie. Cowie's shot went through a crowd of players in front of the net and trickled past the Monroe goalie.
Nikiski kept the pressure on the Rams over the closing minutes, denying Monroe the opportunity to pull the goalie for an extra skater.
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