When Palmer hockey coach Brad Hanson took over this season, he talked about setting realistic goals with his players.
One of those was qualifying for the state tournament.
Palmer hasn't been to state since 1996. Not long ago, the Moose suffered through back-to-back 1-21 seasons. Two seasons ago, Wasilla clobbered Palmer 22-0.
State? That's a nice goal to write down early every season. But it's one thing to be wishful, another to be realistic.
But here's the thing: It is realistic.
After defeating Houston 5-3 on Saturday, Palmer finished 16-5-1, its best season in a decade.
"It's the kids," Hanson said of the turnaround. "It's the work they've put in in the off season, the commitment they made two years ago to get better after getting beat 22-0 (by) Wasilla. You either go into a shell, or resolve to get better."
The best evidence of a winning program was clear prior to Friday's 4-2 over Colony -- the parking lot at Palmer Ice Arena was so jammed with cars that people had to park across the street at Palmer Middle School.
The fans saw a Palmer team that was fast, hard-hitting and confident. Those qualities were needed to dispatch resurgent Colony, which ended its season 10-12 after going winless last year.
Despite being slapped with a 10-minute misconduct penalty early in the first period for jawing at referees, Palmer's Michael Hanson finished with a goal and two assists.
Jared Hanson and Nick Reeves also scored for Palmer, and Jonas Naegele stopped 34 of 36 shots as the Moose won a tense, physical game.
Blake Huppert scored in the first period and Kevin Thygeson in the third for Colony.
A big reason for Palmer's success this season comes not only from Hanson, the longtime offensive coordinator for the Moose football team, but from assistant coach Steve MacSwain, a former Alaska Aces player and assistant coach who starred at the University of Minnesota.
MacSwain, who manages Palmer Ice Arena, attends every practice and home game.
"He's a great coach," said forward Zack Richards. "He's helped us out a lot. Everyone respects him greatly. He knows everything in the book."
Hanson and MacSwain take on different roles: Hanson the fiery motivator, MacSwain the teacher.
"Good cop, bad cop," Hanson said. "I want an edge, he's a teacher. He knows a lot of little nuances for these kids to learn."
Getting to the state championships Feb. 7-9 at Menard Memorial Arena won't be easy.
Injuries and ineligible players have depleted the Palmer lineup, leaving just two lines.
And only two teams from the North Star Conference qualify for state, compared to four from the Cook Inlet Conference. Top-seeded Wasilla and second-seeded Soldotna are clear favorites in the North Star.
The North Star Conference tournament begins Thursday at Homer Ice Arena; the teams that make it to the championship game go to state.
Palmer should win a first-round game against Homer, which finished 0-10 in conference play. But next up would be Soldotna, which received a first-round bye along with Wasilla.
Soldotna has been playing strong of late, giving previously undefeated Dimond a scare before losing 3-2 last week and then knocking off Service for the first time in school history, 2-1. Soldotna handed Wasilla its only conference loss.
But Palmer scored its biggest win of the season two weeks ago at home, beating Soldotna 4-3.
Hanson said his team believed it could win after playing Soldotna tough earlier in the season, a 3-2 loss at the Soldotna Sports Center.
"The most impressive thing about that win to me was, we did what we needed, and what we had to do, to win," he said. "We were a smart team that day. We scored a goal early in the third period and then we were patient on defense. We didn't take any unnecessary risks. We did all the things necessary to win.
"Sometimes, when you're not accustomed to winning, that background where you haven't won much, you don't know how to win," Hanson added. "What (that win) does is give them the ... knowledge they can win that type of game. They can compete with a superior team and eke it out and not fold at the end."
Hanson added that Palmer is long past being satisfied with moral victories.
"That only goes so far, and frankly, we're not interested in that," he said. "We don't want any feel-good things. We want wins."
Colony earned the fourth seed and will play No. 5 Kenai in the first round. The victor moves on to face Wasilla.
Colony coach Dale Mattson said the return of forward Blake Huppert this season sparked the Knights' turnaround. Huppert missed almost all of last season, and his scoring production was sorely missed as Colony finished 0-22.
Time after time this season, Huppert hooked up with Finnish exchange student Risto Paatsama, a savvy playmaker. Sophomore Lance Nezaticky, who finished third on the team in scoring behind Huppert and Paatsama, rounded out a potent top line.
"Compared to last season, we've come a long way," Mattson said. "I'm not completely satisfied with this season so far. But realistically, it's a huge comeback from last year. Double-digit wins, almost a .500 season. I'm proud of them working hard and coming together."
Find Ron Wilmot online at adn.com/contact/rwilmot or call 1-907-352-6712.
By RON WILMOT