Photo: Mike Woodel

Ice 'Cocks to face high-powered UNC Charlotte offense in opener

USC captured consecutive overtime wins against 49ers in 2016-17

In this weekend’s most highly anticipated matchup, USC opens the 2017-18 American Collegiate Hockey Association season Friday against the UNC Charlotte 49ers.

Despite UNC Charlotte’s Division II pedigree, the Division III Gamecocks (15-12-0-1 in 2016-17, 4-6-0-0 SECHC) managed wins of 6-5 and 4-3 when the two teams met in January, with both games decided in overtime.

Still, the team faces 2017-18 without defenseman Kyle Ware’s team-leading 21 goals and All-SECHC presence on the blue line. Considerable effort from the five returning Gamecock defensemen is key if the Gamecocks are to neutralize the 49ers’ (11-6-3-2, 5-2-2-0 ACCHL) notorious offense. Behind them all the way will be returning goaltender Bobby Lombardi, who backstopped Carolina to both wins over the 49ers as well as a fourth-place conference finish.

Be sure to watch for these keys to victory when the Gamecocks open their 17th season of play Friday night:

No easy scoring chances

The 49ers scored nearly 5.8 goals per game in 2016-17, an intimidating stat even disregarding decisive wins of 17-5 and 19-2 over D-III Middle Tennessee State in February. Furthermore, UNC Charlotte’s top four goalscorers will roll into Columbia on Friday night: forwards Andrew Miller (30 goals in 2016-17), Phillip Arnold (13), Zachary Usinger (11) and Chase Wiriden (9). Miller’s goal-a-game mark makes him particularly dangerous to the back of the Gamecock net — he scored two of the 49ers’ three goals in the Jan. 28 matchup with Carolina, including an unassisted marker nine seconds into the third period that ultimately sent the game into overtime. Even with Lombardi and five defensemen returning, it is imperative that the Gamecocks force UNC Charlotte’s strong offensive core to earn any scoring chances if they wish to make it three in a row against the 49ers.

Home ice advantage

UNC Charlotte is most compromised on its last line of defense — goaltending. Despite avoiding sub-.500 records, returning goaltenders Daniel Ritter (5-3-1-1) and Daniel Toland (1-1-0-0) sported lukewarm goals-against-averages of 3.76 and 4.00, respectively, with Toland seeing only 120 minutes of action in 2016-17. Though seasoned against D-II offensive talent and registering a combined mark of 6-2-1-2 against D-III teams in 2016-17, the 49ers allowed a porous 4.3 goals per game on the road last season, compared to 3.5 on home ice. Without top goalscorer Ware, the Gamecocks are returning leading scorer Alec Martone (11 goals, 20 assists in 2016-17) and second-leading goalscorer Sean Davis (12) to the lineup. Maintaining offensive pressure from the opening faceoff and capitalizing on the 49ers’ weakness on the road will be crucial to the Gamecocks building an early lead.

The man behind the mask

Lombardi wowed Carolina hockey fans in 2016-17 with a first-year performance of 11-7-0-1 alongside a 3.06 goals-against-average and .901 save percentage. With 19 games under his belt, the sophomore is primed for a dominant season as the Gamecocks’ only returning goaltender. Off the ice, Lombardi was one of 12 Gamecocks on the All-SECHC Academic Team and one of only four SECHC players with a 4.0 GPA last season. Lombardi is also the only Carolina goaltender with experience against Miller and the opponent's other top forwards, having stood between the pipes for both of Carolina’s 2016-17 victories over UNC Charlotte.

Puck drop is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. Friday at Plex HiWire ice rink in Irmo, South Carolina.



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