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.