Varsity: Ice Hockey – Warwick Panthers 3 Coventry Panthers 4

The last day of January played host to a sporting event sewn deep into the long-standing rivalry between the universities of Warwick and Coventry: Varsity Ice Hockey. With a crowd of over 2,000 hockey-hungry students and an audio-visual experience the likes of which Spank T. Monkey could only dream of mustering, the Coventry Skydome was transformed into a modern day coliseum of bright lights, blaring music and burning contention.

Such a venue perfectly complemented the action on the ice: an orgy of bone-crunching checks, lightning fast dekes and laser-beam shots, with plenty of room for tempers to flare and scores to be settled.

Monday’s match was a particular boost for the popularity of ice hockey at Warwick, with unprecedented levels of participation both on and off the ice. Previous years had seen attendance struggling to break into three figures but a combination of the increasing notoriety of the Warwick and Coventry Panthers’ stunning abilities and slick event management lured in a spectacular crowd to what was surely the highlight of the sporting calendar.

It was notable, however, that Coventry had rallied a distinctly greater level of support, their fans filling one entire side of the Skydome’s three thousand seater stadium. This was partly because Coventry have traditionally been the victors of this annual encounter, including a 3-1 victory over Warwick in 2010. With Coventry fielding experienced players such as Rikki Byrniarski, Jonathan Stobart and Blake Timms, Warwick was dismissed by some as a write-off; however, Warwick wasn’t going to go down without first getting their claws well and truly stuck in.

Early clashes signalled that the players weren’t going to shy away from physical play, with heavy checks (of dubious legality) landing at regular intervals.

Coventry sought to dominate the first period, using their confidence and experience to penetrate the temperamental Warwick defence, however Warwick’s goaltender Chris Green remained a brick wall in the net.

A two-minute penalty for Coventry’s Dave Coles gave Warwick a crucial power play, but the boys in blue failed to capitalise and an impressive penalty kill from Coventry snuffed out any hopes of an unlikely opening lead. However, minutes later, some scrappy defence by the Coventry side allowed Ross Hiscock to burst over the blue line and one-time the puck past a screened Coventry netminder, James Young.

An ecstatic Warwick crowd was met with a peculiar silence on ice, as a high sticking call on Warwick’s Veit Dinges meant that the shot had occured after the whistle and thus the goal was void.

Dismayed but not beaten, the Warwick fans gingerly returned to their seats, much to the pleasure of the relieved Coventry supporters. It was penalties that would continue to haunt the Warwick camp, as Coventry utilised a powerplay to feed Stobart a scrappy but effective goal as he sat on the far post.

Further scraps on the ice between the rival universities inevitably lead to more penalties, with Warwick conceding two simultaneously on more than one occasion. The strain thus placed on the Warwick defensive line was evidently too great as the period drew to a close. Nearly 18 minutes in, the exhausted pairs were unable to prevent Joris Barcelo from skating blue line to blue line before feeding a perfectly placed pass to a waiting, unmarked Ignas Romaškevičius for a top shelf goal.

Coventry would proudly take this 2-0 lead into the changing rooms, leaving Warwick to reflect on an impending whitewash at the hands of their Varsity rivals.

What words were exchanged behind the closed doors of the Warwick dressing room will never be known, but they would surely have gone down in the annals of Varsity history.

Just 20 seconds into the second period, Evan Watts made a dash from behind his goal to centre ice before blasting a slapshot past an unexpecting Young to make it 2-1 to Coventry. A revitalised Warwick then sprang to life, with Andris Egle and Tom Hiscock proving Warwick’s offensive and defensive flexibility. Due to this step up, the second period was a much closer affair, notably lacking any further goals. This statistic lends credit to the outstanding athleticism of both goaltenders, in particular Green (Warwick), whose denial of ENL regular Joe Day’s shot was described as “daylight robbery”. A goal saving challenge on the breakaway by Warwick’s Matti Konsala (whose brother Ville played in last year’s Varsity) saw him make a heavy collision with the boards and there were some fears of injury, yet fortunately the plucky defenceman would go on to make further contributions to the game.

The second period remained nail-biting to the buzzer, with neither team able to capitalise on countless breakaways and rebound shots.

Coventry went into the final period a goal ahead but on the penalty kill. Despite killing it effectively, a hooking penalty from Bryniarski put Warwick back on the powerplay, leaving an enticing opportunity for Warwick’s first line.

A man down, Coventry failed to cover the slot, leaving an opportunity for Matt Finestone to skate in unchallenged and pop a nonchalant shot between goalie Young’s legs.

Immediately, both teams shifted to top gear, with strong, aggressive play from Josh Nicklin and Jonathan Stobart on the Coventry attack.

This clearly rattled Warwick’s team as discipline began to slide and a confrontation between Ross Nicol and Jepu Tenhola by the boards led to Nicol recieving a five minute misconduct penalty.

Driven on by removing one of Warwick’s most effective defencemen, Coventry’s Nicklin unsuccessfully crashed the net, only to set up an unmarked Stobart to fire the loose puck in for his second of the night.

With the score at 3-2, Warwick immediately retaliated. Within six seconds of the faceoff, Warwick’s Tristan Sambruck picked up a blocked pass to dive into the zone and effortlessly unleash a wristshot into the top left corner, past a perplexed Young.

With the scores tied once more, both teams were visibly exhausted from their efforts, yet still both teams attempted to break the deadlock. Chances from Bryniarski and Kevin Cozens were denied by Warwick’s goalie, whilst Sambruck was unable to find his second despite close scrambles on net.

Commentator Paul Wheeler noted that the players seemed “fazed by the pressure” as the 15 minute mark was reached, yet the atmosphere in the stadium continued to swell for what was to be a climactic curtain-down. As had been foreshadowed, it would be the penalty box that would seal Warwick’s fate for another year.

A five-on-three power play for Coventry allowed them to dominate the faceoff and control the puck around the Warwick zone.

This allowed Bryniarski to receive a pass from Brad Hampson and send it up into the top of the net, with just one minute and ten seconds left on the clock.

Despite some valiant efforts from the Warwick team and the echoes of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For a Hero” around the Skydome, Coventry were able to lock down their lead and defend the title for yet another season.

The man of the match awards were granted to Jonathan Stobart and Tom Hiscock. Hiscock said of the match, “It was amazing playing in front of such a huge crowd – hearing them really psyched me.” He attributed Warwick’s performance to “some hard skating from the team and an amazing performance from our netminder”.

Stobart added: “I couldn’t have got [the two goals] without the hard work and brilliant passing play shown by Coventry throughout the game”.

He also praised Warwick’s effort, remarking: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog, and Warwick certainly had a lot of fight!”

Of course, a special mention must be given to the game winner Rikki Bryniarski, who told the Boar: “We said if we were going to win the game, it would be on [the last] powerplay. It felt great to score, with little time remaining.” Bryniarski is no stranger to the world of Varsity hockey, having hammered the final nail into Warwick’s coffin late in the game during Varsity ’10.

The event was an overwhelming success, displaying the vast sporting talents of both universities and drawing in athletes from Canada, Korea, Lithuania and Finland, to name but a few.

Goalscorer Matt Finestone, who is over from McGill University in Montreal, said: “Coming from Canada, I was very impressed with the level of play here.

“It stayed tight throughout, which is a credit to Warwick as I heard we were the underdogs.”

Sport is increasingly being considered a cornerstone of social integration, so events such as Varsity help to reinforce the diverse and rich community that we have come to know here at the University of Warwick.

The aggressive and close fought nature of Varsity ’11 is sure to draw in even greater crowds next year.

Co-commentator and match analyst Chris Neve succinctly explained this as: “Hitting people; it just appeals to the student mind”.

Yet, moreover, we should recognise that the talent and enthusiasm possessed by the students of Warwick and Coventry contributes to the most gripping and exhilarating event of the sporting calendar. So next year, we hope to see even more of you coming to the Skydome to cling to the edge of your seat as you witness the greatest show on ice.


5-on-3: When one team has two players in the penalty box

Check: Shoulder charging an opponent

Dekeing: Faking the puck left or right with the stick

One-time: Shooting the puck without first controlling it

Penalty kill: When your team has a player in the penalty box

Power play: When the opposing team has a player in the penalty box

Slapshot: A powerful shot taken with a large, wind-up swing

Wristshot: A quick push shot

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