Carolina Hockey's season came to an end on Friday night with a disappointing 5-0 loss to defending champions George Washington University in the first round of the ACCHL Tournament in Charlottesville, VA. The Heels outshot the Colonials but couldn't convert in the contentious game. The University of Virginia claimed the Admirals' Cup over NC State on Sunday, winning 5-1, adding a tournament championship to their regular season title.
The Heels graduate seniors Dylan Lyle, Kevin Li, Ben Sisemore, Brendan Radatovich, AJ Hamel, Ian Hawkins, Nathan Haas, Joe Baglio, and graduate student Vincent Boudreau. This group claimed the 2015 Admirals' Cup and includes all five of the Tar Heel captains.
The Heels struggled at the beginning of the season, losing their first five games. In those contests, Carolina allowed 7.2 goals per game (36 total) as the team was plagued with injuries to key players such as Brendan Radatovich and Joe Baglio.
Alex Stephenson led the Tar Heels on the score sheet for the first half of the season, but the forward returned to McGill University in Montreal after winter break and left a vacuum for the Heels in the offensive end.
After Stephenson's departure, though, Carolina hit their stride and found their scoring touch by spreading out the offensive workload. Radatovich's return boosted the Heels' offense and the combination of Ricky Chen, Ben Millar, and Andrew Jordan got red hot in the second half of the season.
Chen in particular was one of the season's greatest success stories; during the first half of the campaign, he created plenty of opportunities but struggled to convert, but in the second half of the year he could barely miss. He highlighted a stellar year with a four goal performance against the Citadel in Charleston on January 28th.
Though their GAA was overinflated through the first five games of the year, much of Carolina's development over the course of the season was tied to drastically improved goaltending from sophomore netminders Chris Bakolia and Gabe Harousseau. Both goalies stepped into a starting role this season and were visibly more confident at the end of the schedule than they were at the beginning. Bakolia and Harousseau stole games for the Heels on numerous occasions this season.
After a loss to Wake Forest on November 10th, beloved goaltending Coach Lefty passed away suddenly. Carolina rallied behind his memory and won five straight games, their longest streak of the season, sparked by a whopping 6-2 victory over NC State in Raleigh.
The Heels went on to win seven of their last nine regular season games. Their final regular season loss came at the hands of NC State in the Backyard Brawl at PNC Arena, when the Wolfpack beat the Heels 3-1 on the strength of two goals from forward Sam Banasiewicz.
The physical contest, which featured two goals from State in the final two minutes, was seen by an estimated crowd of 5,000 fans. The event was an undeniable success and an improvement on the Heels' earlier PNC game against rival Duke, which also attracted spectators numbered in the thousands.
The Heels won their season series against the Blue Devils two games to one and split their series with NC State, the eventual ACCHL runner-up.
Though the Heels did not end their season as champions, in a year defined by injuries, Carolina's players have to hold their heads high. The team improved significantly on both ends of the rink and in the crease, too.
While the team graduates a full class of leaders – in the locker room and on the ice – the Heels can expect further growth from next year's group of torchbearers like Chen, Jordan, and Jonah Graffius. Expect Carolina's goaltending tandem to improve with time, too.
With a few more regular season wins and a more favorable seed in the tournament, there's no telling what may have been for the Heels. Though Carolina dropped both of their regular season games to the ACCHL Champion Cavaliers – 7-3 and 4-3 – the development of this team speaks volumes more than their first round tournament exit.
Next year, the Heels will be forced to fill offensive vacancies left by Hamel and Radatovich, but the team can expect to build on the vast improvement that made the Heels successful in the back half of their campaign.
The keys to next season will be staying out of the penalty box, playing 60 minutes of hard-nosed hockey in both the offensive and defensive ends, and spreading out the scoring among their many talented forwards. Though a lot of talent is leaving Chapel Hill, the Heels have a lot to look forward to next year.