Hockey rallies to defeat North Carolina in season opener

Led by the stellar play of sophomore winger Ryan Fritz, Tech’s ice hockey team came back from a 2-0 deficit in the third period of their season opener to earn a 3-2 victory in overtime over the University of North Carolina last Friday night.

The Jackets, who play in Division III of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, enter their second season under Head Coach Brian McSparron after going 24-4 and getting the chance to compete in the ACHA Division III National Championships last season. One of those four losses last season came against the Division II Tar Heels, and the Jackets faced a considerable challenge in their first game of the 2009-10 campaign as they took on the talented UNC squad.

Last season Tech made a late comeback but ultimately fell 7-6. This time, the Jacket’s late comeback proved successful.

“[Last year] we were down 3-0 at one time and we battled back. Today, we were down 2-0 going into the third and we had a short bench, but we were able to come back and battle hard and get two goals,” McSparron said.

As the game began, the Jackets frequently found themselves on the defensive. Junior goalie Maxx Lucas made a glove save on UNC’s first shot of the game, but the Tar Heels were able to keep the puck in the Jackets’ zone for most of the first five minutes and keep him busy. Tech held up defensively against the pressure thanks in part to Lucas’ strong play in net and the physical play of the defensemen, including freshman Alan Dagesse.

After the Jackets killed a UNC power play their offense finally began to generate some pressure. The Jackets went on a power play themselves with 14:14 left. They nearly scored the game’s first goal when a shot from senior center Michael Midgette bounced over UNC goalie Lyle Baumgarten, but at the last second Baumgarten knocked the puck away from the net.

Throughout the period, Tech attempted to make long passes down the ice in an attempt to catch the Tar Heel defenders off guard, but the passes were often off track and ended up in the possession of UNC players.

The Tar Heels finally got on the board with 3:53 left in the opening period when two Jackets players collided while dropping back on defense, leaving a UNC attacker with an open shot on goal. The shot slipped past Lucas and gave the Tar Heels the early 1-0 advantage.

Less than two minutes later, UNC’s front line skated in with another scoring chance. Berry defended the puck handler before slipping near the net, but Lucas made a sprawling save to prevent the goal.

Sophomore winger Ryan Fritz led the Jackets on the offensive end. The Jacket’s ended the first period and opened the second with a brief man advantage, but Baumgarten and the UNC defenders were able to preserve their lead.

As the teams returned to full strength, they traded rushes for several minutes to open what would be a relatively penalty-free period. With UNC clamping down on Tech’s attack later in the period, Fritz managed to get a breakaway opportunity, but he waited too long to shoot and Baumgarten was able to end the threat.

UNC started controlling the puck again after that, consistently keeping the puck and the pressure in the Jackets’ zone. The Jackets killed a late power play, but the Tar Heels responded as a shot beat Lucas five-hole to put the visitors ahead 2-0. The score remained that way heading into the intermission.

Tech opened the third period on a power play thanks to a UNC penalty with nine seconds left in the previous period. Seconds after the man advantage ended, Berry passed to Fritz, who fired a slap shot from the left side into the corner of the net. The goal put the Jackets on the board and cut the lead to 2-1.

Immediately after the face-off at center ice, Tech senior winger Jeremy Spafard had a quick breakaway opportunity but waited too long for an open shot, and as the rest of the players caught up the UNC goal was knocked off its pegs.

Still, the Jackets finally seemed to have their bearing on offense, and for the first four minutes they repeatedly attacked the UNC zone, thanks in part to a Tar Heel penalty with 17:42 left. After the power play ended, the teams played for several minutes non-stop, with the momentum shifting first to UNC and back to Tech.

Finally, at the 10:46 mark, Berry took a pass from Fritz and fired a shot that went off the goalie’s pads and into the net, tying the game.

Tech’s defenders made some big plays in the following minutes, with Lucas stretching out to make a save with his toe and junior defenseman Dan Podratsky making a big hit to end a UNC threat. Lucas appeared to suffer a cramp at the eight-minute mark, but he remained in the game.

Late in the period, forward Ian Yang committed a hooking penalty, but play continued since the Jackets did not immediately touch the puck; moments later, Lucas was called for slashing as Tech finally stopped the play. Berry went to serve the time for Lucas, and with 2:47 left, the Jackets found themselves on the wrong side of a 5-on-3 situation in a tie game.

Once again, the Jackets stepped up on defense, though. The Tar Heels kept the puck in the Tech zone for more than a minute to start the two-man advantage period, but Lucas held off every shot and Tech was finally able to clear the puck with 1:44 left. UNC brought it right back and managed to catch Lucas out of position in goal, but Dagesse was able to clear it and preserve the tie score. The final seconds went quietly, and the game went to overtime.

“The guys are buying into the system, which is important, and as long as they buy in and see success out of it, that’s the main thing. I think we got a good taste of it tonight, and especially in the third period, because that’s when we focused on staying within the system,” McSparron said.

In the five-minute, 4-on-4 overtime, the Tar Heels were the first to threaten, and they came within inches of winning the game when a shot went off the post. Tech responded quickly, as Berry had a one-on-one situation but shot wide.

The Jackets continued to pressure the Tar Heels throughout the overtime period. A shot from Dagesse slipped through the legs of UNC’s Baumgarten, but the goalie knocked the puck away at the last second.

With just over a minute remaining, Fritz picked up a pass and skated ahead down the right side with two UNC defenders ahead. The sophomore cut toward the goal and dodged the first defender, then spun around to line up his forehand side for a shot.

The well-aimed slap shot flew into the bottom right corner of the net, giving Tech the 3-2 overtime victory and the team’s first win of the season.

“I looked up and saw two defenders in front, and I thought I would cut to the center. I made a move on the first defenseman with the puck at my back, and I didn’t take the backhand shot because it probably wouldn’t have gone in, so I did my little spin thing and shot for the back post, and it went in,” Fritz said, describing his final goal.

The Jackets will likely face a tough road ahead as they attempt to build on their success from last season. The 2008-09 squad had more than 30 players, allowing Tech to maintain four forward lines and keep players fresh during games and throughout the season. Additionally, the team thrived on the combination of strong leadership from several seniors and the talented play of the younger members of the team.

This year, though, graduations and other issues have depleted the roster, and the Jackets took the ice against UNC with just 15 active players.

“With this year’s team, we just have to stay with a simple system. Last year we had the talent to do a lot more. This year, there’s a little less talent and we don’t have a deep bench, so we just tell the guys to play the game and make it simple,” McSparron said.

Whereas last season the team could rely on several lines for scoring, the smaller roster means the roles are more specialized on this team. Tech expects to rely on the forward line of Fritz, Berry, and graduate student Josh Navikonis for much of its scoring.

“Each line knows that they have certain things to do, whether it’s to score, to play straight defense, to dump the puck in and try to grind and wear the other team down…Our line is supposed to score goals, so that’s what we’re out there trying to do,” Fritz said.

“Our defense last year was pretty good, and our focus was to get the puck in deep and grind them. This year, other than the Berry line, we’ve been telling everybody to do more passing, pick up open guys, and just chip and run,” McSparron said.

Continuing the strong start will not be an easy task, as the schedule does not get any easier for the Jackets with two tough road games this weekend. On Saturday the Jackets will face Central Florida, the No. 3 team in last season’s D-III South regional rankings, and on Sunday they will battle the No. 1 team in the South region last season in Florida Gulf Coast.

Tech finished last year as the No. 2 team in the South; the Jackets defeated Central Florida 6-4 last Nov. but never had a chance to battle Florida Gulf Coast for the top ranking in the region. This weekend’s games will be a challenge but will provide the Jackets with a chance to build on their early momentum and pick up where they left off last season.

“You always want to get the first one under your belt, especially with the way our schedule is this year. We could easily be 4-1 or 0-5 [after five games]…so when you start out with a win against a Division II school like this, it’s a big confidence booster going into next week,” McSparron said.