Mariners skate to strong finish at Ice Challenge

The Peninsula Ice Challenge, held at the Soldotna Regional Sports Center last week, saw hockey action between the SoHi Stars, Kenai Kardinals, Eagle River Wolves and the Homer Mariners. In Saturday’s championship battle between the Wolves and the Mariners, the Wolves prevailed 4-2.

“We were excited to be in a position to attain more hardware, but to be honest, that was not mentioned as a goal,” said Head Coach John Carlin of the possibility of bringing home a trophy. “That takes care of itself with great play. Our goal was and is to progress and develop as a team, climb our mountain. With solid positional play and hustle we are excited for this season ahead.”

Homer’s first game pitted the Mariners against the SoHi Stars and ended with a tight one-point victory for SoHi, 4-3.

Friday’s battle against the Kenai Kardinals was intense and spilled into overtime with Homer scoring the final point and claiming a 2-1 victory. The Mariners’ focus was fueled by memories of last year’s regional tournament when Homer suffered a 4-1 loss to Kenai in the quarterfinal round.

“We recorded nearly 50 shots on net and achieved our goal of finishing strong,” said Carlin of Friday’s game. “Three to four times the amount of shots were taken on their net in the last two periods versus Kenai and helped us tilt the sheet in our favor. And finish the job. … So, I think our team had added incentive this time, and we hope to correct last year’s record versus that team.”

Saturday saw Eagle River secure a 4-2 win against the Mariners for the tournament crown, with Homer giving Eagle River their closest game of the tournament.

Eagle River jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, pounding 19 shots on Homer’s goalie Markian Polushkin in the first period alone. Homer improved its play late in the first period and carried that improvement into the second and third periods. The Homer power play struggled in the game, with difficulty in cleanly moving the puck into the offensive zone, and the power play struggles led to two short-handed goals for the Wolves.

In the second period, freshman Robby Larson scored his first varsity goal on a nice backhand shot, with assists by Kiril Sanarov and Garrett Butcher, bringing the Mariners to within one goal. 

“It was a relief to get that first goal, to keep us in the game,” Larson said. “Garrett passed the puck to me from the right and I skated across the crease and scored.”

After falling behind 3-1, the Mariners once again pulled within a goal, when Garret Butcher scored. Butcher found a juicy rebound on the backhand side and didn’t waste it.

Getting assists for the goal were Dawson Roberts and Robby Larson. Carlin gave goaltender Riley Swanson the third period and the Polushkin-Swanson goaltending duo played well. While the Mariners kept the game close, and had several scoring chances, they couldn’t find the third goal to tie the game.  

Following the game, Eagle River Coach Bill Comer said, “No disrespect to the teams down here, but things will get tougher when we go back to Anchorage. But this was the perfect tune-up tournament for us.”

From Carlin’s perspective, however, Homer did the peninsula proud, giving Eagle River “a solid game. … It was a one-goal game for most of the game. Whereas the other two teams, the games were decided early and deteriorated quickly. Not our game.”

The Mariners’ disappointing defeat by the Wolves last year came during a tournament that began with a win against East High, followed by a tied game with West.

“We faced Eagle River last and did not have much in the tank and suffered our worst loss last year, 6-0,” said Carlin.

“This was not the case this year even after a three-game stretch again. One to two pucks away from winning the tournament against Eagle River is better than our finish with them last year. Again, we just want to keep improving and realize our maximum potential and the key, to peak at the right time.”

The Peninsula Ice Challenge was a testing ground for this year’s Mariner team, a balance between upperclassmen and a younger group of skaters that will become the team’s foundation in the future.

“Our veterans are solid players with experience and hunger to make this season a special one. I think they may have sensed this at times throughout the weekend. They are all leaders in their own way and we look to them to be great role models for our younger incoming athletes,” said Carlin. 

The Mariner hockey team also includes skaters from Flex and Voznesenka.

On Tuesday, the Mariners were back on the ice and scored a 3-1 victory over the SoHi Stars in some at-home action at the Kevin Bell Arena.

“It was lots of fun to play with all those supportive fans, a packed house,” said goalie Markian Polushkin, who stopped 12 of 13 shots for a .923 save percentage. 

 Their next games are during the End of the Road Shootout, Nov. 20-22. The three days of play offer local fans an opportunity to see the team in action against participating teams SoHi, Bartlett and Houston.

“Even if you are not sure of the difference between a ‘close line’ or a ‘blue line,’ please come out and enjoy some hot hockey action and support your local athletes,” said Carlin.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at Peninsula Clarion reporter Jeff Helminiak and Wendy Wayne also contributed to this story.