After playing in one of the greatest spectacles in ACHA history just mere days ago, the Icepack now looks to redirect their focus to a bigger task ahead. The upcoming weekend marks the ACHA South Regionals, a single-elimination tournament in Springfield, Virginia in which the two teams left standing on Sunday will each receive a bid to the 2023 National Tournament. The schedule was recently released for which teams will play on Friday in the opening games, and I bet you can’t guess who the Icepack drew in their first matchup…
That’s right, the UNC Tar Heels. What’re the odds? Game 6 is normally a phrase you hear in regards to a gridlocked and tight-knit NHL playoff series, but that isn’t the case here. The bitter rivals will face off for the sixth and final time this season in Virginia on Friday night, each with hopes of punching their ticket to the Gateway City in mid-March. The Icepack walk into regionals down two games to three in their season series against UNC, but have a few advantages that may prove to be the difference upon puck drop.
The most notable advantage the Icepack has on the Tar Heels coming into their regional matchup is an ironic one: UNC making the ACCHL Championship Game. While this initially seemed to be a tough break for the Icepack a few weeks ago, falling short of capturing their fifth straight ACCHL Championship, stadium issues forced the championship game between the Tar Heels and Penn State Nittany Lions to be played this Thursday instead. This forces UNC to go from Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Springfield, Virginia overnight in order to make their Friday night matchup against the Icepack, and provides NC State with the chance to take advantage of a tired, emotional team with car legs.
Another leg-up the Icepack has on the Tar Heels is something they haven’t had all season long up until this point: momentum. Through their first three matchups this season, the Tar Heels managed to win all three, including two wins in Raleigh. However, momentum changes quickly in the game of hockey, and it’s currently swinging the Icepack’s direction. The boys in red have won their past two games against UNC, once on the road and most recently in front of 26,000 fans at Carter-Finley Stadium outdoors.
The Icepack has had an extremely successful week thus far, collecting spotlight from several major news outlets and social media pages for playing in one of the largest outdoor collegiate hockey games in history. However, there are bigger fish to fry for NC State, with the ultimate season goal on the line this weekend. It’s been a week of NC State dominance over UNC, and the Icepack will look to keep that trend going on Friday night.
Well, today’s the day. After a long and exciting lead up over the past few weeks, the NC State Icepack finally gets their chance to do something not many ACHA teams can claim: play in an outdoor hockey game… in North Carolina, no less. To add the cherry on top, the Icepack will take on the bitter rival UNC Tar Heels in their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity under the big lights.
The Icepack and Tar Heels walk into this highly anticipated matchup feeling good about themselves following dominant performances in their spring semesters. The Icepack recovered from a shaky first half of the season, ripping off an 8-game win streak and a 10-3 record overall in the second half. The Tar Heels come into the outdoor battle on a heater of their own, boasting an impressive 6-1 record in the spring semester. Their lone loss came at the hands of NC State at home just two weeks ago.
There’s certainly some good home team juju in Carter-Finley Stadium for the Icepack, as teams that play host in the venue are 7-1 this season. This includes the hometown Carolina Hurricanes dismantling the visiting Washington Capitals by a score of 4-1 on Saturday night in the 2023 NHL Stadium Series. However, road games have not been an issue for the visiting Tar Heels, a team who’s gone 3-0 against the Icepack in away games.
Neither the Icepack nor the Tar Heels are strangers to playing on NHL ice, especially against one another. This will be the second game this season the two teams have played each other on an NHL-regulated ice surface, the first being the Governor’s Cup at PNC Arena at the conclusion of the fall semester. UNC took this game by a score of 4-2, securing their first Governor’s Cup victory since its inception. The Icepack holds the all-time upper hand in this area, notching a 5-1 overall record in games on NHL surfaces.
There’s a clear winner of this outdoor feat, regardless of which team comes out victorious: the growth of hockey in North Carolina. North Carolina, and specifically the Greater Triangle area, has become a hotbed for youth hockey, in large part due to the advancement of the club collegiate programs in the state over the past decade.
Two ACHA teams playing under the lights of a football stadium is something few North Carolinian hockey fans would have predicted just a few short years ago, and there’s no doubt a spectacle such as this will only continue to grow the game for years to come.