Top-seeded Houston defeated No. 3 Soldotna 7-0 for a second Division II state hockey title in three years Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna.
After getting upset in the state semifinals by Juneau-Douglas: Yadaa.at Kale last season, the Hawks finished their redemption season 21-3-1 and did not lose after Nov. 14.
Houston won its three games at state by a combined score of 26-1, while the Stars were one game short of defending their state title and finished 12-7.
No. 2 Palmer defeated No. 5 Kenai Central 7-2 for third place, with the Moose recovering from a heartbreaking loss to SoHi in Friday’s semifinals to finish 18-8-1. The Kards finished 12-11-1 and will always be able to say they’re the first team in program history to win in the first round at state.
No. 4 Juneau (12-9-1) recovered from that first-round loss to Kenai to top No. 6 North Pole (9-12-1) 5-1 for fourth place.
Soldotna was the only Division II school to defeat Houston this season, winning 6-3 on Oct. 27 in the second game of the season for both teams.
Hawks captain Afanasy Efimov said he didn’t play in that game and is not sure what happened.
“All the boys just got back into rhythm again,” Efimov said. “As soon as we got the rhythm, we were cruising through all the teams.
“We came to state at our highest peak and swept through.”
The captain said the semifinal loss to the Crimson Bears was the driving force behind the team.
“We were on a mission,” he said. “Last year was a fluke. This year we came back stronger and wanting to win all the way.
“We just came out as a team and brought it all three games.”
Just under four minutes into the game, Efimov put the Hawks up 1-0 on a Daniel Matveev assist.
Then, with a large crowd filling one side of the sports complex to take in the first state final at the venue since 2004, a stalemate and tension developed in the game.
Houston failed to convert a pair of power plays despite getting some great chances.
“It’s nerve-wracking, these championship games,” Houston coach Lane Styers said. “For some of these guys, it was their first one ever.
“And I’m sure some of these kids have never played in front of that many people before.”
Houston gave SoHi a chance to get back into the game with three penalties in the final 2:33 of the first period, giving extended five-on-three time.
“Our thoughts were if we could get one here, right now, and make this place come alive, maybe we can get rolling,” Soldotna head coach Anthony Zurfluh said. “We just couldn’t find the net tonight.
“We had some chances, but our power play struggled with the puck a little bit.”
Efimov said the Hawks gained some momentum from the successful penalty kills. Then SoHi took a penalty with 10:33 left in the second period.
Daniel Matveev, assisted by Efimov, ripped in a wrister past goalie Tanner Clyde on the near pipe at the 9:19 mark and the game shifted quickly.
“As soon as we got those first two goals, all the boys were back in it,” Efimov said. “And we felt like we’re just gonna start cruising through. And that’s what we did.”
The Hawks would added three more goals in less than four minutes to take control of the game.
Brayden Spain scored on the power play on assists from Domnin Efimov and Ari Burnside, Brody Richard scored on a Spain assist, then Spain scored on a Richard assist.
“That’s a good hockey team,” Zurfluh said of the Hawks. “They just caught us, they bounced us a little bit.
“The effort was there, but we fought the puck a little bit. The passion was there. It’s a great group of kids. I love these guys. It’s hard to say goodbye.”
After it was 5-0, Tanner Clyde was pulled in favor of Brycen Clyde. Tanner made 12 saves on 17 shots, while Brycen made 10 saves on 12 shots. Burnside had a 17-save shutout for the Hawks.
“We thought Tanner Clyde had a great tournament,” Zurfluh said. “He was just getting pounced. I didn’t want to demolish him so we got him out of there and let his brother take a little bit of the load.
“Tanner played great and it was not his fault, that’s for sure.”
In the third period, Domnin Efimov had assists to Philip Kuzmin and Matveev to finish the scoring.
Styers has been on Houston’s staff for eight or nine years. His father, Mike, also coached at Houston for 20 years. The two recently came to a verdict about where this team ranks in Houston’s history.
“I was asking him, and he’s like, ‘There’s no doubt. It’s the best team that’s ever come through Houston High School,’” Styers said.
The coach said the only bad part about Saturday is it ends Houston’s season. In past years, the Division II champ got to play in the Division I tournament but that was done away with this season.
“It’s a bummer and we’re really hoping to get that put back in,” Styers said. “Because these kids deserve it.
“They work just as hard as everyone else to try to be the best and they don’t really get that opportunity.”
Zurfluh, who credited his staff for all the time they put in this season, said it was great to have the state tournament at SoHi’s home rink.
“It was amazing to have all my friends and family show up to support us,” he said. “That’s a big deal. I thank the community for that.
“I thank my booster club. They worked super hard to make this happen. The venue here was great. I couldn’t be happier, other than maybe winning the game.”
The players of the game were Spain for Houston and Aiden Stinnett for Soldotna.
Palmer 7, Kenai 2
It was a good day for Palmer head coach Rusty Belanger. His nephew, Kenai’s Logan Mese, got a goal, but Belanger’s team was still able to record the win after losing in the semifinals in overtime the night before.
“The focus was the season’s not done yet,” Belanger said. “Rather than play for first place, we still had business today. And we came out and did it.
“It was nice to see Logan out there for Kenai, but I have some seniors I’m pretty close with.”
The coach said losing senior captain Bradford Heard really hurts, and Palmer also loses seniors Jackson Neumann, Nathanael Wright and Ryan Martin.
Palmer took the lead first in the game when Dane Joseph scored on Cooper Frank and Chase Ringler assists, but Braden Smith tied it for Kenai with an unassisted goal.
A big turning point came with 2:36 left in the first, when Kenai took a five-minute major for tripping.
That allowed Palmer’s explosive power play extended time on the ice, and by the time the penalty was up the Moose had a 3-1 lead.
Kaleb Von Gunten scored on Zidane Dietz and Frank assists, and Kinan Greco scored on Dietz and Elijah Von Gunten assists.
“Down by two, we just didn’t have it,” Kenai head coach Scott Shelden said. “We didn’t have the energy.
“No excuses, but it’s hard to play for something other than the championship. I’m super proud of our team this season, especially the month of January. We won some big games.”
Palmer went up 4-1 midway through the second when Ringler scored on Dietz and Joseph assists.
With 5:55 left in the second, Mese cut it to 4-2 with help from Sawyer Vann and Cole Langham, but Kellan Payne scored unassisted for Palmer less than 30 seconds later.
Elijah Von Gunten, assisted by Kaleb Von Gunten and Heard, tacked on a power-play goal for a 6-2 lead headed to the third. There, Bryce Horacek finished the scoring on Payne and Martin assists.
Keagon O’Bryan made 27 saves for Palmer, while Evyn Witt stopped 29 for Kenai.
Belanger said he has a ton of respect for the Kenai program and Shelden, saying Shelden is the type of guy he’d like to stay in touch with long after the two are done coaching.
“Kenai is the one team I’ve always hated playing,” Belanger said. “The reason being they grind and they go to the end. They never stop.”
Both coaches said they still have plenty of talent in the program, but that doesn’t make the end of the season any easier.
“I hate saying goodbye,” Shelden said. “There’s nine kids in the program we’re saying goodbye to.”
The players of the game were Zidane Dietz for Palmer and Gavin Liles for Kenai.
Juneau 5, North Pole 1
The Crimson Bears took a 4-0 lead in capturing fourth place.
In the first period for Juneau, Ian Moller scored on a Brendan West assist, Loren Platt scored on a West assist, and Matthew Plang scored on Camden Kovach and Elliot Welch assists.
Harris Monsef then made it 4-0 in the second period on a power-play goal with assists from Moller and Dylan Sowa.
The Patriots then struck for their only goal of the game with 3:26 left in the second period, with Carter Borkovec scoring on a Blayne Jusczak assist.
A little over a minute later, John Mcelmurry answered for the Crimson Bears with help from Monsef.
The academic award went to Palmer, while the sportsmanship award went to Juneau.
The all-tournament team was Houston’s Brody Richard, Daniel Matveev, Afanasy Efimov and Ari Burnside, Soldotna’s Andrew Arthur, Jace Appelhans and Marshall DeRaeve, Palmer’s Elijah Von Gunten and Zidane Dietz, Kenai’s Logan Mese, Juneau’s Caden Johns and North Pole’s Carter Borkovec.