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Preview: UNC club ice hockey seeks revenge in home opener against Kentucky


UNC forward Patrick O'Shaughnessy (14) transitions the puck accross the rink during the ice hockey game against N.C. State at Carter-Finley Stadium on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. UNC lost 3-7.

The North Carolina men’s club ice hockey team put itself on the map last year.

UNC defeated N.C. State at PNC Arena to win its first Governor's Cup in school history last season to burst onto the scene. As the team gained popularity, the Tar Heels found themselves playing against the Icepack again, in front of over 25,000 fans at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Eventually, North Carolina fell one win short of making the 2023 American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II National Tournament, losing 2-1 to Kentucky in the Southeast Regionals. 

On Saturday, UNC will look to get revenge against Kentucky in its home opener at the Orange County Sportsplex in Hillsborough. Here's three keys things to watch for in North Carolina's new-look team.

Attention to detail on defense

Kentucky is fast and physical. UNC sophomore forward Patrick O’Shaughnessy admitted that considering the Wildcats’ skill, the Tar Heels can't afford to make the same mistakes as they do against other teams.

According to O’Shaughnessy, head coach Adam Dauda has emphasized neutral zone protection more over the past week.

When the puck is in the neutral zone — between the blue lines in the middle of the ice — Dauda wants his squad to execute a forecheck, with one player going directly for the puck, two more supporting and the last staying behind.

O'Shaughnessy mentioned that containing cross-ice passes are another focus, given that they are a common method of outnumbering an opponent on counterattacks.

“Things happen quick at the blue lines,” O’Shaughnessy said. “You want to make sure you're either getting it in or you’re getting it out.”

Matching Kentucky's depth

Another challenge the Wildcats present is their depth. Even though UNC will have home-ice advantage, giving Dauda the luxury of making the last line change, the head coach mentioned that it will be difficult to exploit any mismatches against Kentucky.

Meanwhile, North Carolina saw a noticeable drop-off in skill last year when its top two attacking lines and defensive pairs were subbed out. This season, O’Shaughnessy thinks it'll be a different story for UNC's depth, as its third string defensive pairs attacking lines should be able to keep up.

“That's gonna make a huge difference in terms of just having our legs for the whole game,” he said. “And throughout the season, just having different guys who can step up and make an impact.”

On top of reducing fatigue, sophomore defenseman Florian Zajic said the Tar Heels' newfound bench strength only motivates the players to build off each other, regardless of their place on the depth chart.

“[With a] bigger roster, you have this upward pressure of people trying to make it into the lineup,” he said. “And if you have this upward pressure, I think everyone's just going to practice better, play better in order to either secure their spot or try to get into the lineup.”

Remaining confident under pressure

After picking up 8-1 and 4-2 wins over Delaware and Rowan, respectively, the Tar Heels have yet to play in a tightly contested match this season.

On Saturday, UNC will likely find itself in a back-and-forth affair with Kentucky for all three periods. Dauda is confident that the work his crew has put in will be on display.

“That's what we're preaching [to] the guys recently, is if we take care of the work aspect, the skill and everything else that comes with it will take over for us,” Dauda said.

To hear O’Shaughnessy tell it, North Carolina's top lines' skill separates it from other teams — particularly the ability to control the pace of games.

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“A lot of these club hockey games, they're like dogfights,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Like, [the] puck’s going everywhere. So when we have guys who can slow things down and make plays, that's what's gonna put us above other teams.”

Zajic took his teammates' sentiments a step further, saying that no one in the conference, or even Kentucky, can match UNC's scoring potential.

Knowing what the Tar Heels achieved last season, combined with their increased roster depth, Zajic noted that there's an element of fearlessness within the team.

“We don't have to be scared, because we have this confidence and trust in ourselves, our teammates and our head coach to take back control of the game and just get back on top,” Zajic said.


@DTHSports |