An interesting and tightly matched Railbelt Conference got more interesting and even tighter after a weekend of play on the Kenai Peninsula.
Houston, which had come into the weekend undefeated in the conference, lost 4-3 in overtime at Homer on Friday and 6-4 at Kenai on Saturday.
The Mariners handed the Hawks their first loss in the Railbelt Conference on Friday at the Kevin Bell Ice Arena.
Homer avenged a 2-1 loss in overtime to Houston on Dec. 10.
Homer’s Matfey Reutov, assisted by Casey Otis, finished a wild, back-and-forth game with the winner with 1:13 left in overtime.
Kazden Stineff, assisted by Reutov and Hunter Green, scored the game’s first goal in the opening minute of the second period, but Brayden Johnson answered for Houston just 31 seconds later.
The Hawks went up with 2:51 left in the second on a Andrey Reutov goal, but Casey Otis, assisted by Green, answered before the second ended.
Just 36 seconds into the final period, Otis scored again, this time assisted by Toby Nevak, for a 3-1 lead. Daniel Matveev tied it for Houston with just 2:05 to play.
Keegan Strong stopped 28 for the Mariners, while Ari Burnside saved 29 for the Hawks.
The Kardinals had a huge weekend, also topping Palmer 3-1 on Friday at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility, moving to 12-7-1 overall and 8-2-1 in the league. Homer is now 6-10-1 overall and 5-5-1 in the league.
To cap the close weekend of hockey, Soldotna and Palmer tied at 1 on Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The Stars are now at 10-7-2 overall and 5-3-2 in the league.
The intrigue only builds for the Division II state tournament, which will be held at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla from Feb. 3 to 5.
The Railbelt, which has seven teams, gets four automatic berths to the tournament. With an additional two at-large berths available, Railbelt teams that have been playing tight contests all year — Homer, Houston, Juneau-Douglas, Kenai, Palmer and Soldotna — could make for a spellbinding tournament.
“Everybody’s good,” Kenai head coach Scott Shelden said. “This conference is so good.”
Kenai honored seniors Jacob Begich, Ayden Spann, Koda Norbeck, Carson Koppes and Kate Harris before Friday’s game and carried that emotion through the weekend.
“We were fired up to support our seniors tonight,” Shelden said Friday. “They’ve been all that you can expect seniors to be this year. And we came out strong.”
On a night where Palmer had 12 penalties and Kenai had 11, it was no surprise special teams decided the game. The Kardinals had two short-handed goals and a power-play goal.
Kenai went up 1-0 late in the first when Logan Mese, assisted by Begich and Caden Warren, scored on the power play.
In the second period, Palmer spent a lot of time on the penalty kill and goalie Joshua Horacek was up to the task. He finished with 41 saves for the game, while Koppes had 30.
Palmer’s Kinan Greco tied the game at 1 with 46 seconds left in the second. When Kenai took a penalty seconds later, the Moose had the momentum for the first time all night.
But just 25 seconds into the power play, Begich rushed the puck up the ice and found Mese for a short-handed goal.
“Our best player moving the puck and a freshman battling and putting it in,” Shelden said. “That was a huge goal.”
About five minutes into the third, Palmer looked to have the game tied, but Koppes came up with a miraculous glove save.
“It was buried, it was wide open,” Shelden said of the save. “It was going in and he sticks his glove out and catches it. It was huge.”
With 9:27 left, Begich put Kenai up 3-1 when he beat everybody up the ice for a short-handed goal. Norbeck and Gavin Liles got the assists.
“We are so proud of our team right now,” Shelden said. “There’s things we could do differently and get better. But it’s team-first to a person in that locker room right now and it’s been there since the beginning.”
Koppes kept right on rolling Saturday, making 37 saves, while Houston’s Ari Burnside had 25. Kenai had lost twice to Houston this season.
Avery Martin, assisted by Daniel Shelden and Mese, scored just 12 seconds into the game, but Andrey Reutov had things square less than five minutes later.
The Kardinals jumped to a 3-1 lead in the second on a pair of Mese goals, the first assisted by Martin and the second by Shelden. Spencer Hogan was able to cut it to 3-2 headed to the third.
Kenai stretched the lead all the way to 5-2 midway through the third when Begich scored unassisted and Norbeck scored with help from Martin.
By the 4:27 mark, Daniel Matveev had brought the Hawks back to 5-4 with a pair of goals, but an empty-netter by Landen Cialek, assisted by Begich, salted away the win.
Soldotna 1, Palmer 1
The Moose and Stars played to a physical tie Saturday. Palmer finished with 14 penalties, while the Stars had nine.
With 1:41 left in the first period, Mason O’Rourke scored the lone goal for the Moose.
With 8:04 left in the second period, Dylan Dahlgren, assisted by Josh O’Lena, tied the game with a power-play strike.
That would be all that Palmer goalie Joshua Horacek and Soldotna goalie Tanner Clyde would allow. Horacek finished with 31 saves, while Clyde finished with 26 saves.
Mariners 4, Hawks 3, OT
Houston 0 2 1 0 —3
Homer 0 2 1 1 —4
First period — none. Penalties — none.
Second period — 1. Homer, Stineff (Reutov, Green), 0:29; 2. Houston, Johnson (D. Efimov), 1:00; 3. Houston, Reutov (Johnson), 12:09; 4. Homer, Otis (Green), 13:43. Penalties — Houston 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Homer, Otis (Nevak), 0:36; 6. Houston, Matveev (Kuzmin, D. Efimov), 12:55. Penalties — Homer 2 for 4:00.
Overtime — 7. Homer, Mat. Reutov (Otis), 6:47. Penalties — none.
Shots on goal — Houston 9-14-8-0—31; Homer 8-11-13-1—33.
Goalies — Houston, Burnside (33 shots, 29 saves); Homer, Strong (31 shots, 28 saves).
Kardinals 3, Moose 1
Palmer 0 1 0 —1
Kenai 1 1 1 —3
First period — 1. Kenai, Mese (Begich, Warren), pp, 14:52. Penalties — Palmer 3 for 6:00; Kenai 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 2. Palmer, K. Greco (O’Rourke), 14:14; 3. Kenai, Rogerss (Mese, Begich), sh, 14:46. Penalties — Palmer 6 for 18:00; Kenai 6 for 15:00.
Third period — 4. Kenai, Begich (Norbeck, Liles), sh, 5:33. Penalties — Palmer 3 for 6:00; Kenai 4 for 8:00.
Shots on goal — Palmer 9-11-11—31; Kenai 17-16-11—44.
Goalies — Palmer, Jo. Horacek (44 shots, 41 saves); Kenai, Koppes (31 shots, 30 saves).
Kardinals 6, Hawks 4
Houston 1 1 2 —4
Kenai 1 2 3 —6
First period — 1. Kenai, Martin (Shelden, Mese), 0:12; 2. Houston, Reutov (un.), 4:55. Penalties — Houston 1 for 2:00; Kenai 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai, Mese (Martin), 1:21; 4. Kenai, Mese (Shelden), 6:48; 5. Houston, Hogan (Richard), 11:13. Penalties — Houston 1 for 2:00; Kenai 3 for 6:00.
Third period — 6. Kenai, Begich (un.), 4:02; 7. Kenai, Norbeck (Martin), 6:13; 8. Houston, Matveev (un.), 9:25; 9. Houston, Matveev (Reutov), 10:33; 10. Kenai, Cialek (Begich), en, 14:58. Penalties — Houston 1 for 2:00; Kenai 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Houston 11-14-16—41; Kenai 9-11-11—31.
Goalies — Houston, Burnside (30 shots, 25 saves); Kenai, Koppes (41 shots, 37 saves).
Stars 1, Moose 1
Palmer 1 0 0 0 —1
Soldotna 0 1 0 0 —1
First period — 1. Palmer, O’Rourke (Allen), 13:19. Penalties — Palmer 2 for 4:00; Soldotna 2 for 4:00.
Second period — 2. Soldotna, Dahlgren (O’Lena), 6:56. Penalties — Palmer 6 for 12:00; Soldotna 3 for 6:00.
Third period — none. Penalties — Palmer 2 for 4:00; Soldotna 3 for 6:00.
Overtime — none. Penalties — Palmer 4 for 30:00; Soldotna 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Palmer 8-6-10-3—27; Soldotna 6-11-8-7—32.
Goalies — Palmer, Jo. Horacek (32 shots, 31 saves); Soldotna, Clyde (27 shots, 26 saves).