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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC club ice hockey displays robust defensive structure in 4-2 win over Kentucky

UNC senior forward Henry Foster (8) waits for a pass at UNC club hockey's season opener at Orange County Sportsplex on Sept. 23, 2023.

The North Carolina men’s club ice hockey team prides itself on its skill in the open ice. The kind of skill that gets the fans out of their seats. The kind that's perfect for a home opener.

But the Tar Heels' visitor on Saturday wasn’t an average foe. Kentucky knocked UNC out of the final round of the American College Hockey Association Division 2 Southeast Regionals last season, denying the Tar Heels their first-ever national tournament appearance.

To beat Kentucky last weekend, UNC needed more than its skill.

With a greater emphasis on defensive structure, the Tar Heels beat the Wildcats, 4-2. Not only did UNC’s skill sparkle, but so did its care for the little details, like its 1-1-3 structure and shot-blocking. The win demonstrated a step in North Carolina's transition from having an underdog label to being a regional threat. Last season, Kentucky was ranked No. 3 in the Southeast Final Rankings, while North Carolina sat at No. 11.

“I think everyone's kind of settling in and realizing that, when we have a fun crowd like we did tonight, while the flashier plays get the big cheers, those aren’t what wins hockey games,” senior forward Henry Foster said. “It's got to be everyone pulling the same rope the entire time for 60 minutes trying to get a win.”

Following the win, Foster shouted out the Tar Heels’ stock of creative forwards who can make things happen in a split second. He said that knowing these talented players can turn a game on its head allows UNC to keep pushing for all 60 minutes. 

But against Kentucky, a team that had buried five goals against N.C. State in its last game, UNC head coach Adam Dauda knew he needed more than his players' skill — the Tar Heels needed structure.

On Saturday, whenever the puck was between the blue lines, Dauda deployed a 1-1-3 structure. In this scheme, one forward stops the puck carrier, the second forward stays behind to read and react and the third forward drops back to form a backline of three.

The 1-1-3 worked. Both goals UNC conceded were in power play situations where UNC was down a man, and the Tar Heels allowed no goals from five-on-five.

Against previous opponents, Dauda had emphasized the little details to his players. For example, he drilled the idea that a third forward must pressure the puck at a good angle so the opponent doesn’t slip by.

Before Saturday's game, Dauda said that against teams like Kentucky, paying attention to the little details can halt opponents' momentum.

“I've been preaching in practice where we want to work hard," Dauda said, "But also at the same time want to play smart and stay in control and stay in a good structure.” 

After the game, Dauda praised his defense for stuffing the Wildcats' shooting lanes and forcing them to the outside to create narrower shot angles.

Senior defenseman Wills Kendrick-Holmes praised Dauda and said the coach’s practice plans make a big difference in how UNC has improved structurally. Despite having only two hours per week to practice with his team on ice, Dauda's efficiency gets the job done.

“We have been pretty limited in the amount of time that we've spent out on the ice and been able to work through [the systems],” Kendrick-Holmes said. “So I think it’s a really good sign that we're already performing pretty well with our systems, particularly defensively.”

In arguably its biggest home game to date, UNC displayed the improvements it made in the offseason. Though early, a first-ever appearance at the ACHA National Tournament looks more than possible.

“We knew [Kentucky was] gonna have guys who are gonna make plays,” sophomore forward Patrick O’Shaughnessy said. “But we also knew that we have a really good team. And if we play our game, there's no reason we can't beat them or any other team.”


@DTHSports |

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