The Kenai Central High School hockey team hosted Soldotna Friday night at the Soldotna Sports Center, and while the Stars beat the Kardinals for the third time this season, the gap between the two teams is starting to shrink.
After defeating the Kardinals 7-4 in the first week of the season, then drubbing Kenai 11-2 in the Peninsula Ice Challenge, the Stars defeated the Kardinals 5-2 in the first North Star Conference meeting between the teams this season.
"We got a conference win -- that's the most important thing," said Soldotna coach Pat Nolden. "Kenai played us tough. They kept us to the outside as much as they could, and limited our good shots."
Kenai coach Brian Gabriel Sr. said that, with such a young squad, buying into the team's defensive philosophy would be key to the team's success.
"They're picking up the defensive concepts we're trying to teach," Gabriel Sr. said. "What we're teaching at practice is sinking in. Forwards are coming back and picking up a man, instead of just chasing the puck, and that limits their Grade A chances."
Kenai had the first Grade A chance of the evening as defenseman Brian Gabriel Jr. potted a goal, unassisted, just 52 seconds into the game.
Eric Newby tied it up for the Stars at 4:56 of the first period, scoring during a four-on-four situation. Newby took a whack at a puck in front of the Kenai net and was able to pop it past Kenai goalie Ryan Dukowitz. Billy Smith assisted on the play.
Anthony Murray put the Stars in the lead 7:52 later, redirecting a shot from the point for a power-play goal. Smith and Newby earned assists on the play.
"I think our lines are starting to play better now that we know how we work together and where to put the puck," Smith said.
Blaine Johnson scored the only goal of the second period, taking the puck off the boards behind the Kenai goal, making a quick move toward the front of the net and tucking the puck past Dukowitz at 9:06 of the period. Newby and Smith assisted on the play.
Peter Kim set up Keith Herring for Soldotna's fourth goal 3:28 into the third period, and Smith added a power-play goal for the Stars, assisted by Johnson, with eight seconds left in the game.
Gabriel Sr. said five third-period penalties hurt the Kardinals.
"We felt like we were in this until the third period,' Gabriel Sr. said. "We were short-handed for most of the third period, and that's hard to do against a team like Soldotna, especially when we didn't generate any power plays ourselves. We took a close game and put it out of reach."
Still, the Kardinals are optimistic about the rest of their season.
"A couple more bounces our way and it's a different game," said Kenai defenseman Kevin Oberg. "We've just got to put a few more shots on net. The younger guys are stepping up. We're playing four lines, and that's getting the whole team better."
STARS 5, KARDINALS 1
Soldotna 2 1 2 -- 5
Kenai 1 0 0 -- 0
First period -- 1. Kenai, B. Gabriel Jr. (unassisted), 0:52; 2. Soldotna, E. Newby (Smith), 4:56; 3. Soldotna, Murray (B. Smith, E. Newby), 12:48 (pp). Penalties -- Soldotna 1 for 2:00, Kenai 2 for 4:00.
Second period -- 4. Soldotna, Johnson (E. Newby, Smith), 9:06. Penalties -- Soldotna 2 for 4:00, Kenai 2 for 4:00.
Third period -- 5. Soldotna, Herring (Kim), 3:28; 6. Soldotna, Smith (Johnson), 14:52 (pp). Penalties -- Soldotna 2 for 4:00, Kenai 5 for 10:00.
Shots -- Soldotna 10-9-9--28, Kenai 3-5-3--11.
Goalies -- Soldotna, Bishop (8 shots, 7 saves), Gleason (3 shots, 3 saves); Kenai, Dukowitz (28 shots, 23 saves).
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