Off the ice
As has been the case in each of the three “Backyard Brawl” games played PNC Arena, the atmosphere and the event itself trump the game results. If you are a hockey fan, you just cannot beat bringing the college sports rivalry and atmosphere to the PNC Arena ice. True to history, Monday night’s match up featured the same fun atmosphere which paired nicely with an intense and spirited battle on the ice.
Per the dueling game previews posted earlier today (The UNC preview is HERE, and the NC State preview is HERE.), the teams entered the game in significantly different positions. NC State is headed to the playoffs and just working improve their seeding and make sure they are ready. UNC will not make the playoffs but has been making positive strides as it builds through the end of the season and looks forward to the 2018-19 season.
For both teams, just like any other time these two schools meet, the game is also for local bragging rights.
North Carolina State Icepack vs. Carolina Hockey
Against that backdrop, the two teams took to the ice at PNC Arena for their third meeting in an NHL barn. The North Carolina State Icepack struck first, but despite that goal, the first period very much showed that the Carolina Hockey team had come to compete. By no stretch of the imagination was UNC willing to let records coming into the game dictate who had the upper hand. During significant stretches of the first period, the Tar Heels were actually the better team. They forechecked aggressively. They won the puck possession battle and tilted the ice into the offensive zone. And along the way they mustered a few decent scoring chances. If the first period was any indication, and ultimately it was, the game was to be evenly played with both teams trading punches, both figuratively and literally, throughout.
The Icepack struck first when a Ryan Lenzmeier shot seemed to carom off a skate in front and into the net. But shortly thereafter the Tar Heels were rewarded for a generally strong first period when Ben Sisemore picked off a sloppy pass in his offensive zone and deposited a pretty backhand up over NC State goalie Joey Hall and into the net to the game at 1-1. UNC would score again on a rebound in front to claim a 2-1 lead that it would take to the dressing room at the end of a strong first period for the team in blue.
The second period was a stark contrast to the first. In the first period, UNC won the puck possession battle and generally gave up very little in terms of speed through the neutral zone or scoring chances off the rush. In the process, they coaxed and unusually quiet period out of NC State’s top line led by Sam Banasiewicz and Luis Gimenez. But NC State’s top duo two cracked the seal on their offensive game when Banasiewicz found an opening behind the UNC defense, received a pass and was off to the races for a breakaway and pretty finish. That theme would be repeated later. Next Cam Mazikowski would finish on the power play on a pass from Gimenez. When Gimenez finished on a Banasiewicz pass only 1:24 later, the the Icepack had suddenly climbed out to a 4-2 lead, had their top scorers clicking and seemed primed to run away with the game. But then with 6:05 left in the second period, Ben Sisemore scored his second of the night on a blast. The goal was a huge one for UNC and pulled them to within a single goal at 4-3 and more significantly dug a skate into the to slow the Icepack’s momentum and stop them from running away with the game. Though the Sisemore goal did seem to at least slow the onslaught, NC State’s dynamic duo struck back when Banasiewicz made a pretty feed from behind the net to find Gimenez in the slot for another goal to make it 5-3. And that is how the second period ended.
But to start the third period, Carolina Hockey was right back at it forechecking hard and making it difficult for NC State to move the puck up the ice. Somewhat like the first period, the result was again a decent amount of puck possession and opportunistic offense in intermittent spurts for Carolina Hockey. In what was maybe the poster moment for UNC’s determination and effort on the night, Andrew Jordan put on a show to get the Heels back to within a goal at 5-4. The play started with Jordan getting hammered into the boards in the corner and separated from the puck. Rather than retaliating, he instead won the puck back and then put on a show. Some combination of winning the puck, losing the puck, sticking with it and doing some nifty stick handling ended with him playing the puck through a defender’s legs and then ultimately labeling a centering pass to Ricky Chen who finished right out in front of the net. The goal seemed to put wind in the Carolina sails, and from there the third period was one of each team trading counter punches in terms of hockey, intermittently chippy play and ultimately a couple real punches being thrown at the end. NC State responded and had some great sequences and chances including another Banasiewicz breakaway and a shot off the post on the power play but was unable to score a finishing goal. When Peter Kelly scored for the Tar Heels with 6:42 left, the game was tied and an exciting finish was all but assured. And the game did not disappoint.
Two minutes later their were fisticuffs and two ejections. On the ensuing power play, Gimenez scored again to finish off a hat trick with the pass again coming from Banasiewicz. Carolina had three late scrambles with an extra attacker on the ice and came really close to tying the game on multiple occasions, but in the end the final horn sounded with the NC State Icepack victorious by a 6-5 margin.
My humble opinion is that the game was the best of the three played at PNC Arena, and the game was easily the competitive of the two this year.
Batman and Robin on the NC State side
I will leave it to someone else to figure out who is who, but after a slow first period, the deciding factor in the game was again, Sam Banasiewicz and Luis Gimenez. The duo combined for four of the Icepack’s six goals with at least five assets to go with the goals. UNC Coach Jeff Volkman will be as happy to see these guys graduate as their own parents.
Ben Sisemore on the UNC side
The Tar Heel veteran rightfully made his way into the three stars. He scored the Tar Heels all-important first goal to get them rolling, and also tallied the team’s third goal that was a turning point in the game. After the Icepack found a higher gear offensively in the second period and tallied three straight, my gut instinct was that this game was on the path to getting away from UNC until Sisemore responded late in the second period.
A solid effort despite the result for UNC
After watching the match up earlier this season and then catching up on the two teams’ paths since then, my early watch point was what kind of attitude UNC would play with. Would they humbly just try to hang around against a better team? Would they fold early if UNC scored first figuring they were just out-manned? The result was quite the opposite actually. I thought the Tar Heels were the more assertive team early by a reasonable margin and also the better team though maybe by a smaller margin. Credit to the UNC coaching staff and team for a strong effort.
Chippiness and intensity=> Thumbs up // Some extra stuff=> Thumbs down
One of the highlights of this game in all three cases has been the intensity level, combativeness and physical play. There is a pureness to college age kids playing a game they love for their school for some combination of fun, pride and team camaraderie. And the chippiness and physical play only adds to the entertainment and enjoyment of the game.
But the tricky part with intense play is staying on the right side of the line. Both teams had a couple unnecessary penalties where things boiled over during the course of the game, and as exciting as it was for the crowd, I am not a fan of the sequence in the final five minutes that saw a player from each team ejected. The play started with a UNC player taking an obstruction type penalty checking an Icepack player behind the net. That initial play deserved the penalty that it earned and maybe was not a great decision. But was within the play of the game. That was followed by NC State’s Eric Webb lining up the UNC player in the corner like a heat seeking missile and coming from a distance with only one purpose. The play was from the category of boarding penalties that are avoidable and also the kind that sometimes do not see the player who is checked get up. Fortunately the UNC player got up angry which beats not getting up in my book, and a brief fight ensued. So maybe at least the fight part can just be chalked up to emotions boiling over at least until Webb concluded the sequence with a final hay maker while the referee was pulling the UNC player away.
Since no one seemed to be hurt, this event probably added to the fun for most in attendance, but the potential that it instead ends with someone being carted off the ice makes it not okay. The situation is challenging given the emotions and intensity in a game like this, but I think it is on the coaches and the teams’ leadership to keep the intensity within the confines of the game.
You gotta try this!
If you are one of the people who sees this event when it comes around and prioritizes it as ‘meh club hockey’ you are missing out. If you like the competitive atmosphere of other college sports and also a fun night of pretty good even if not professional caliber hockey, you really need to put this game on your calendar and make it next time.
Interesting Hurricanes ticket promotion for attendees
During the game, fans could buy a set of two lower level tickets to Tuesday’s AND Thursday’s (both, not one or the other) Canes games for a total of $10. That’s right — 2 tickets — downstairs — a TOTAL of $10. The team has clearly done a complete 180 from Don Waddell’s iron fist approach to protecting season ticket prices and value and greatly limiting deeply discounted promotions and freebies.
With only one person at the in-arena ticket window, the line was literally about 200 people deep at one point, but when I was leaving, the line was only about 20-30 people, and it seemed as if everyone who wanted tickets was going to get them.
Whether or not promotions like this are a positive or net is a more complicated discussion, but one positive is that Canes fans can expect to see a significantly bigger weekday crowd on Tuesday and Thursday.