The loss of eight key Homer seniors coupled with the returning cast of rising Soldotna skaters left the debate of who would stand as the top peninsula hockey team in question as this prep season opened.
The Homer Mariners helped answer the question to that debate Tuesday night with a statement win on SoHi’s home ice, prevailing 6-3 in a feisty Railbelt Conference meeting at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Homer lost to SoHi 4-0 on Dec. 7 at its home rink, but channeled energy and momentum into its raucous style of play to return the favor Tuesday.
Homer junior Ethan Pitzman rang up a hat trick and tallied the biggest goal of the night with 6:18 to go to give Homer the lead back after SoHi rallied to tie it in the third period.
“We kept the energy up on the bench, yelling and tapping the boards,” Pitzman said. “We just tried to keep any momentum up.”
Isaiah Nevak notched two goals for Homer, while Hunter Warren held up his end in the Mariners net with 32 saves on 35 shots.
“We can always count on Hunter,” said Homer head coach Steve Nevak. “It’s never a worry with him in goal.”
SoHi starting goaltender Josh Tree stopped nine of 12 shots over the first two periods, then Corbin Wirz took over for the third frame to stop four of six shots. The Mariners had seven total shots on goal in the third period, but Wirz only faced six of them because the final shot and goal was an empty-netter.
Alex Montague, Galen Brantley III and Ethan Yeager each scored for SoHi.
The play at times became rough as both teams fought for every inch and resulted in some pushing and shoving late in the second period. Homer committed eight penalties in the final two periods alone.
Pitzman said he knows many of SoHi’s players well from the club level, but when the two high school teams face off, there are no friends — at least for 45 minutes.
“We scored 10 (goals) on them regularly last year, but this year we came out and wanted to show we can still do it,” Pitzman said. “… It’s a friendly rivalry, but I think we showed we can (still be the top team) tonight.”
After a breakout 2017 season that saw Homer stake its claim as not only the top peninsula team, but one of the top teams in the conference, the Mariners returned in 2018 challenged to regain that glory after the loss of a star-studded senior class.
While the Mariners haven’t shown the kind of goal-scoring punch they had last year, Pitzman and company still have a 6-1 conference record. Soldotna (7-1 Railbelt) lost its first conference contest this season.
Nevak said as the play between the two teams has evened out in 2018, any night could go either way between Homer and SoHi.
“It’s any given night right now,” Nevak said. “Who knows?”
Montague opened the scoring for SoHi just 3:47 into the game with a breakaway chance that Montague finished with an upper left shot into the netting, putting the Stars up 1-0.
Pitzman scored his first of the evening with 4:58 left in the first period to even it up, taking a cross-ice pass from Tucker Weston to slot in the goal.
Tyler Gilliland gave Homer the lead at 2-1 early in the second period, intercepting a pass from the SoHi blue line and slapping home the go-ahead goal, and Pitzman scored his second of the night on the power play midway through the frame for a 3-1 Homer lead.
Soldotna came roaring back in the third period, however. Brantley III collected the puck at the right corner of the crease and had an easy look at net to score less than two minutes into the third to cut the Homer lead to 3-2.
Yeager then tied the game with 7:30 left as a shot rebounded off the pads of Warren, then trickled back and underneath Warren to sneak in for a game-tying goal.
However, Pitzman completed his hat trick with his biggest goal of the night with 6:18 to go, rattling a wrist shot by Wirz to give the Mariners the lead back at 4-3.
“I told the boys, ‘Let’s dig, let’s get this,’” Nevak said. “Hockey is a game of superstars, and Ethan is a star, and he showed up.”
Isaiah Nevak sealed the victory with two goals in the final 3:07, the second coming on a short-handed empty-netter from the opposing faceoff circle.
Mariners 6, Stars 3
Homer: 1, 2, 3 —6
Soldotna: 1, 0, 2 —3
First period — 1. Soldotna, Montague (unassisted), 3:47; 2. Homer, Pitzman (Gilliland, Weston), 10:02. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Homer, Gilliland (unassisted), 2:13; 4. Homer, Pitzman (Nevak, Green), PP, 8:49. Penalties — Homer 3 for 6:00; Soldotna 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 5. Soldotna, Brantley (Haakenson), PP, 1:51; 6. Soldotna, Yeager (Medcoff, Miller), 7:28; 7. Homer, Pitzman (unassisted), 8:42; 8. Homer, Nevak (Gilliland, Shafford), 11:53; 9. Homer, Nevak (unassisted), SH, 13:26. Penalties — Homer 5 for 10:00; Soldotna 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Homer 3-9-7—19; Soldotna 10-12-13—35.