WASILLA – In the late stages of a monumental, tied postseason hockey game, when elation and agony hang in the balance for each side, conventional wisdom preaches safety – take no chances, do no harm.
Late Saturday night, though, Alex Bardsley dismissed the bland and gambled on the bold. And the West High senior defenseman's risk reaped immense reward – he and his West High teammates lifted the First National Cup as state large-school champions for the second straight season.
Bardsley's daring coast-to-coast skate culminated in his go-ahead, game-winning goal with less than three minutes left in regulation and triggered West's 4-1 victory over Chugiak at the Menard Center.
Bardsley added two empty-net goals to cap his career with a hat trick.
Still, it was his fearless rush up ice with the game tied 1-1 that turned a match that had been deadlocked since less than seven minutes drained off the clock.
Bardsley carried the puck out from behind his net and whistled a pass to Jackson Lindemann on right wing in the neutral zone. As Lindemann fired a cross-ice pass to Garrett Bruner on left wing, Bardsley continued wheeling toward the Chugiak zone.
"I saw that and thought, 'Where's he going?'"said West coach Nathan Shasby. "He was determined.''
Bardsley accepted Bruner's feed in the right circle and roofed a wrister over the glove of Chugiak goaltender Jack Walters with just 2:20 left.
"We've all been in overtime so many times, and we don't like it,'' Bardsley said. "I thought, 'Why not go for it all right now?' And it paid off.''
Overtime glory is nothing new to Bardsley. As a freshman in the Cook Inlet Conference tournament, his goal in double overtime seized a state berth for the Eagles. The following week, Bardsley scored in double overtime to beat Wasilla in the first round at state. And as a sophomore, Bardsley's OT strike furnished the Eagles a first-round, state-tournament win over West Valley.
"The amount of big goals he scores is ridiculous,'' Shasby said.
Shasby played Bardsley primarily at forward during the regular season, but moved him back to to the blue line for the postseason, where defense matters most. The result: West, behind freshman goaltender Isaiah Saville, surrendered just one goal in three games at this state tournament.
Saville stopped 12 shots Saturday and 50 of 51 he faced in the tournament for a .980 save percentage.
"I have full faith and trust in him,'' Bardsley said.
Walters, a sophomore, proved profoundly stingy too. He stopped 34 of 36 West shots Saturday and 77 of 82 shots (.939 save percentage) in the tournament.
Walters backstopped a Chugiak team that was a roughly .500 club at the holiday break and generated a hot streak after that point to reach the title game for the first time since winning it all in 2000 in coach Rodney Wild's first season behind the bench.
"Hard work,'' Wild said. "They busted their asses and made a point to get better. I'm so proud of these kids.''
West, which beat Chugiak twice in the CIC regular season but fell to the Mustangs in the conference tournament, carried the play Saturday. Granted, much of the Eagles' 38-13 advantage in shots stemmed from a philosophy of firing on net from distance and from difficult angles – from anywhere, really – but they owned a legitimate territorial advantage. That was particularly true after Chugiak scored less than three minutes into the game when John Hammer accepted a slick behind-the-back pass from Zachary Krajnik and roofed a shot from the low slot off the crossbar and in.
West, though, countered four minutes later when defenseman Mac Fair threw a seemingly harmless shot on net from the left-wing boards. The shot glanced off Walters' stick and trickled over the goal line for a 1-1 tie.
"They're not going to give it to you,'' Wild said of the Eagles. "Credit to them – they responded. They didn't get rattled. We played hard. West was a better team tonight.''
After Fair tied the game, the goaltenders – particularly Walters, given the amount of rubber he faced – ruled.
"Every shot on net, either side, it stresses you out,'' Bardsley said.
Chugiak enjoyed the game's only power play, early in the second period – Fair's interference penalty against Hammer was the game's only infraction. But West killed that Mustangs man advantage without allowing a shot.
And so it remained tied, through the second period and nearly all of the third, until Bardsley and company gambled and won, and he added two chip shots into Chugiak's empty net. At the final horn, the Eagles piled upon Saville and celebrated before accepting awards, hoisting hardware and taking pictures with teammates, family and friends.
"I'm going to remember this for the rest of my life,'' Bardsley said.
First National Cup All-Tournament Team
John Hammer, F, Chugiak; Max Helgeson, F, West; Mac Fair, D, West; Ryan Perius, F, Dimond; Zachary Krajnik, F, Chugiak; Alex Bardsley, D, West; Augie Stevens, D, Dimond' Tanner Edwards, F, West; Jack Walters, G, Chugiak; Isaiah Saville, G, West; Caleb Moretz, F, West Valley; Connor Canterbury, D, Eagle River.