Hockey can be a cruel sport. The Homer Mariners learned that Saturday night.
A wild three minutes of frantic hockey punctuated the end of Saturday night’s Division II state championship game, and the Palmer Moose were the ones walking off the ice with a 6-5 overtime victory and the state title in front of the raucous home crowd at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
Palmer sophomore Owen Hayes played spoiler for the Mariners with the game-winning OT goal 3:16 into the extra period.
Prior to OT, the Homer Mariners staged a miraculous rally, erasing a 4-1 deficit and taking a brief 5-4 lead with a minute to play in regulation, but the magic that had graced the Mariners suddenly evaporated as the Palmer Moose had one more trick up their sleeve. Palmer’s Luke Theisen tied the game with 34.4 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
For Palmer, it’s the second state hockey crown in school history and first in 30 years.
“They believed in themselves,” said Palmer head coach Dean Wilson. “That’s not how you want to win a game, being up 4-1 at one point, but you’ve got to be careful with Homer. They’re going to dance around your guys if you’re going to be just standing there looking at the puck.”
For Homer, it’s the second time the Mariners have finished runner-up at state hockey, following a 4-1 loss to Houston in 2005.
It’s undoubtedly the most agonizing.
“I’ve played hockey for 30 years, and that happens,” said Homer head coach Steve Nevak. “That’s hockey. In these big games, everybody shows up. Palmer showed up and they wanted it, and they peaked at the right time.”
The Moose entered the tournament on an at-large bid as the No. 4 seed while Homer was the No. 3 seed. Top-seeded Soldotna lost in overtime to Palmer in Friday’s semifinals.
Before this, a hockey team from Homer had never played in a state championship game. Before the hockey conference for smaller schools was shaken up this year, moving Homer, Soldotna and Kenai Central down from Division I to Division II and putting them in the Railbelt Conference, teams in the North Star Conference (which used to include Homer) competed in a conference tournament. From there, certain teams were given a berth to the state championships. Now, it’s the winners of the Division II state championships that get an automatic berth to the Division I state championships where the bigger schools play.
“It’s just so disappointing to come back like that, take the lead, then get one unlucky bounce,” said junior Ethan Pitzman, who finished with two goals.
The late drama began with Homer staring at a daunting 4-1 deficit as the third period began. The rally began with 12 minutes left in the game on a Pitzman goal.
But things really got wild with 3:06 left when Pitzman scored again, this time on a rush on goal just as a Mariners power play expired. That cut the lead to 4-3.
“It was one goal at a time,” Nevak said. “We got one goal, then it’s about getting another one … it’s one shift at a time.”
Palmer was called for hooking with 2 1/2 minutes left, and Homer capitalized again, this time off the stick of Isaiah Nevak with 1:30 to go to tie the game.
With momentum clearly on their side, the Mariners then took a 5-4 lead with 1:03 to go on a chip shot by Tyler Gilliland, stunning the home crowd and sending the Homer supporters into a frenzy.
“We just got fired up and started scoring and got on a roll,” Gilliland said.
It all amounted to three Homer goals in 2:03 of game time and 4-2 hole that transformed into a 5-4 lead.
Pitzman said the Mariners have rallied from third-period deficits throughout the season, but with a state title on the line, the Moose had one last gasp effort and made it count. Theisen somehow poked the puck by Warren to tie it back up with 34.4 seconds remaining in regulation.
Both teams had several good chances in overtime, but as destiny would have it, a hooking charge to Pitzman in overtime put Homer on the penalty kill, and Hayes was the one to get his stick on the puck to win it.
Prior to the late theatrics, Palmer enjoyed a successful second period that began tied at 1 apiece. Zach Nelius won the opening faceoff of the period and scored just 12 seconds in to put the Moose ahead 2-1, and Nathan Hooks padded it with a goal 31 seconds later to make it 3-1.
Nelius added a second goal late in the period on the power play to put the Moose up 4-1 heading into the final frame.
With seven seniors graduating, including starting goaltender Hunter Warren, team co-captains Tucker Weston and Ali McCarron, Brenna McCarron, Nikola Reutov, Lee Lowe and goalie Conner Roderick, Nevak said the message in the locker room after the game was one of motivation.
“Remember this feeling and this won’t happen again,” Nevak said. “We have a strong junior class that I believe in 100 percent.”
Homer 3, Juneau 0
One word defined the Homer Mariners’ state semifinal win over Juneau-Douglas on Friday.
Having lost two tough road games to Juneau earlier in the season, the Mariners claimed the most important one of all, Friday’s Div. II state semifinal with a resounding 3-0 victory to secure their spot in Saturday’s championship final.
Homer junior Ethan Pitzman notched a hat trick for Homer, breaking open a scoreless game with three goals in the third period, and senior Hunter Warren stood tall in goal with a 43-save shutout.
It was everything they could have imagined.
“This is the one that counts,” Warren said.
“This is everything,” Pitzman added. “This is like regions for us.”
The triumph was also redemption for a heartbreaking loss at the conference tournament a year ago, when Homer lost a chance to qualify for its first state tournament ever with a semifinal loss to Wasilla.
“You’ve never seen so many young men cry in the locker room,” Pitzman recalled of that loss. “That was a dream season.”
Now, in the school’s first ever state hockey appearance since the state split into two divisions for large and small schools, the Mariners are 2-0 in the postseason in program history.
Homer coach Steve Nevak credited team health in helping the Mariners reach their goal. Two weeks ago, Homer had a rash of players ill as they took to the road in Juneau and lost 4-3 in overtime before returning the next day to lose 7-3.
“Our goaltender was one of the sick ones in Juneau,” Nevak said. “Obviously he ain’t sick no more.”
Warren was a menace between the pipes, stifling the Crimson Bears with dynamic play including a handful of highlight-reel stops. Warren staved off 35 shots in the first two periods alone, including a 21-save second period.
“I always think in big games, you’ve got to pull it though,” Warren said. “You’re team’s going to help you out all they can, but in the end, lot of times it comes down to the goalie so I had to play with the mindset that it would all be me.”
The drama built as neither team could solve the other’s goaltender. For Juneau, goalie Cody Mitchell warded off the Mariners’ advances, and finished with 23 saves.
For a second day in a row, Nevak said Homer came out sluggish and nervous, and unable to shake off the funk they were in, but encouraging words kept their minds in the game.
“Talking about positivity,” Nevak said. “Kids were on the bench, feeling down and getting frustrated, and once we started rolling with the positivity, everything changed.
“I said whoever gets that first goal, the other team will stay down.”
As the third period dawned, the intensity reached a whole new level, and Pitzman finally broke the tension with 9:43 left to play on a rush down the right flank, redirecting a cross-ice pass from teammate Tyler Gilliland to slip the puck by Mitchell for a 1-0 lead.
“That power play goal was huge,” Pitzman said. “My linemate Tyler with two beautiful passes … we’ve been playing since we’re like six years old, and no one works harder than him.”
Pitzman delivered again with 4:02 to go, then finished off his hat trick with 1:37 left on another assist from Gilliland to send the Homer crowd into a frenzy.
Megan Pacer contributed to this story. Reach her at email@example.com.
Moose 6, Mariners 5, OT
Homer 1 0 4 0 —5
Palmer 1 3 1 1 —6
First period — 1. Palmer, Brooks (Biddle), 8:18; 2. Homer, Gilliland (Pitzman), 14:42. Penalties — none.
Second period — 3. Palmer, Nelius (Armstrong), :12; 4. Palmer, Hooks (Wilson), :43; 5. Palmer, Nelius (Hayes, Wilson), PP, 13:09. Penalties — Homer 3 for 7:00; Palmer 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 6. Homer, Pitzman (unassisted), 3:00; 7. Homer, Pitzman (Nevak), PP, 11:54; 8. Homer, Nevak (unassisted), PP, 13:30; 9. Homer, Gilliland (Pitzman, Shafford), 13:57; 10. Palmer, Theisen (Wilson), 14:26. Penalties — Palmer 3 for 6:00.
Overtime — 11. Palmer, Hayes (Wilson, O’Rourke), 3:16. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Homer 12-17-17-0—46; Palmer 12-10-5-1—28.
Goalies — Homer, Warren (28 shots, 22 saves); Palmer, O’Rourke (46 shots, 41 saves).
Mariners 3, Crimson Bears 0
Juneau 0 0 0 —0
Homer 0 0 3 —3
First period — no scoring. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00.
Second period — no scoring. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00; Juneau 2 for 4:00.
Third period — 1. Homer, Pitzman (Gilliland), PP, 5:17; 2. Homer, Pitzman (Nevak), 10:58; 3. Homer, Pitzman (unassisted), 13:23. Penalties — Homer 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Juneau 14-21-8—43; Homer 11-5-10—26.