Last weekend in Winston-Salem, the top eight teams in the Atlantic Coast Collegiate Hockey League did battle looking to hoist the Admiral Cup as conference champions. The NC State Icepack, the top seed with a 22-0-0 record (9-0 in conference play), were looking to cap off the best season in program history with the title. With a lethal forward group, deep defense, stellar special teams play, and rock-solid goaltending, the Pack looked like the odds-on favorite coming in. But as with any one-and-done tournament in the game of hockey (or any sport, really), strange things can happen.
To open the tourney, the Icepack easily dispatched eighth-seeded St. Joseph’s on Friday afternoon by a score of 11-1. Up next, the Pack drew fourth-seeded Wake Forest, one of the hottest teams in the conference who were playing a de facto home game. Just one week prior the Deacs nearly ended State’s undefeated season, carrying the lead into the third period before two goals in the last 6 minutes gave NCSU a 3-2 victory. This game was similarly tightly-contested, but, as they’ve done countless times this year, the Pack would pull away in the third. Almost immediately after the Demon Deacons had cut the score to 3-2 early in the frame, assistant captain Ryan Kinney wired a perfect shot just under the crossbar to re-instate the two-goal lead. Then, just two minutes later, captain and league MVP Sam Banasiewicz would add an insurance marker, banging in a rebound to make it 5-2. From there, sturdy defense and rock-solid goaltending from Josh Cannon took the Pack to a Sunday afternoon date with the 3-seed Virginia Cavaliers.
Virginia’s path to the Finals was a little less convincing with two one-goal victories heading in. They held a 4-1 lead over George Washington (#6) in their opener before having to hold on for dear life late for a 4-3 win. Next, they battled back to score three unanswered third period goals to down the Georgetown Hoyas (#2) by a 5-4 count in one of the weekends biggest thrillers. But don’t let those differences in results fool you – UVA has a ton of speed and an outstanding goalkeeper behind them. It’s hard to dispute that these were the best two teams in the league during the regular season, and we all knew this one was going to be a tight-checking doozy.
The Pack started off with a bang. Once again it was Ryan Kinney getting the ball rolling, after Tyler Alfonzetti made a great play from behind the net to feed him in the slot. He beat David Voigt for an early 1-0 lead. The Pack carried the play for long stretches of the first period and headed to the room with a 22-9 shot advantage. However, Voigt was an absolute stud, and he kept his team one shot away from tying it right back up. The teams came back out for the second and it was largely more of the same. State got the cycle game going, got pucks to the net, and made some gorgeous plays, but getting the puck past Voigt seemed like trying to get a volleyball in a billiards pocket. He was positionally sound, athletic, and has good size. The kid knows something about winning championships, too, as he backstopped his Connecticut high school team to a state title back in 2015. He looked like he might steal another for much of this game.
The Pack added another 26 shots for a two-period total of 48. Voight stopped 47 of them. It was just as absurd as that sounds. Then, with a second intermission lead seemingly in sight, a big sequence unfolded. With just under two minutes to go in the second, a Cavalier forward took a run at Pack defenseman Ellis Rushford, which, generally speaking, is a terrible idea. Rushford would send the kid flying with a textbook hip check… that was called for a trip. UVA was handed a golden opportunity, and they took advantage. Joey Hall, who was fantastic all game long, was beaten by a point shot through heavy traffic with just 47 seconds to go. Just like that, in a game they had dominated, the Pack were in a 1-1 deadlock heading to period 3. To make matters worse, Nikita Anistratov was penalized for a big hit with just 10 seconds remaining, and the Pack were back to the kill to start the third. It had the potential to be the game’s defining moment.
Before we explain how the third unfolded, let me set the stage for you a bit. This game was huge for the Icepack in a lot of ways. Just two years ago, the Pack fell to these very Cavaliers in the finals, allowing five unanswered goals in the last two periods of the game. Seniors Joey Hall, Davis Hudson, Eric Mura, Ellis Rushford, and Tyler Alfonzetti were all playing in their last ACCHL tourney. Also playing in his last ACCHL tourney was Sam Banasiewicz – one of the best players in the history of NC State hockey who has meant far more to this program both on and off the ice than I am capable of explaining here. They all knew how it felt to get this close but ultimately fall short. They’d yet to bring home the title, and this was their last chance. It was time for redemption.
The Pack came out and had an outstanding kill to begin the period. The Cavs couldn’t even gain possession in their offensive end. However, UVA wouldn’t relinquish the momentum easily. Three and a half minutes into the third, they surprised the Pack defense with a backdoor cut from Jack Yager who tapped in a great feed from Jacob Fishman. All of a sudden, the Pack were facing a third-period deficit against a very good team with a seemingly unbeatable goaltender. However, as Sam said in the locker room just before that period, “Good teams play through adversity; great teams win through it… and we are a great team”.
As mentioned above, the Pack has been a third period team all year long. In the few times they have seen deficits, they have overcome every single one (obviously, or the loss column wouldn’t have an “0” in it). Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise when the tilt of the ice towards the Cavalier end re-commenced. Just a minute and a half after the go-ahead goal, the Pack’s top line went to work. After working a nice cycle, Banasiewicz made a beautiful backhand saucer pass across the offensive zone to Ian O’Rourke. He would step in from his point position and release a quick wrister into the top corner, blocker side, finally solving the puzzle that was David Voigt. Then, the storybook ending was written. After another great shift from that same top line, Ellis Rushford fired one at the net that was stopped by Voigt. However, it was Banasiewicz, once again, getting to the dirty areas and punching in the rebound. 3-2, State. If you don’t believe in the hockey gods… Well. I’ll just say, no one deserved it more.
From there, Joey Hall held it down. The Pack wouldn’t give an inch in their own end, and the ACCHL’s Rookie of the Year, Riley Johnson, sealed it with an empty netter. For the third time in program history, it was NC State hoisting the Admiral Cup. From Head Coach Mike Gazillo all the way down to the fifth liners in the stands (my hand is raised, you just can’t see it), this team has earned its place in local hockey lore. It may not seem like much, “just club hockey” I’ve heard on more than one occasion… but at 25-0-0, and with an amazing group of guys, I know damn well that my boys and I will never forget it.
Bruising defenseman Eric Mura was named tournament MVP, scoring three goals and adding at least three or four assists (I can’t find an exact number). In all honesty the award could have gone to any number of guys. I do not mean that as a knock on Mura in the slightest – he was fantastic all weekend and absolutely deserved the honor. I simply mean to illustrate that the team got massive contributions from every single member of the lineup.
The Pack now shifts its attention to the Southeast Regionals in two weeks in Lynchburg, Virginia. They qualified as the 8th seed with their record of 25-0-0, and draw #5 Rider University in the opening round. From there, two advancing teams will qualify for Nationals in Dallas, TX (in total, four teams from each region qualify, but Florida Gulf Coast and Penn State got a bye to Nationals as the respective #1 and #2 seeds). Follow me on Twitter to check for links, I’ll try to get one up in case anyone wants to watch the streams (highly recommended).
While losing some key members, the Icepack will return an outstanding team that are early favorites to repeat in the league next season. If you didn’t have a chance to catch any this year, I highly recommend making plans to do so during the 2019-20 season. The games also stream on YouTube from PackTV. It truly is good, enjoyable hockey, and the support means more than you guys can know, as we continue grow the greatest game in the world.