UNLV Rebel Hockey welcomed fans back into City National Arena for the first time in 20 months for their home opener against the University of Illinois Fighting Illini Friday night.
The game was preceded by an auction of specialty warm-up jerseys honoring first responders, and 58 seconds of silence to honor the lives lost in the October 1 shooting in 2017.
The game got underway shortly after and started out with a UNLV penalty to forward Luke Burke for tripping.
The Illini power-play unit came onto the ice and got to work immediately, making crisp passes to one another in the offensive zone while trying to get set up. The Rebel penalty kill unit attempted to defend against the powerplay, which they did, albeit looking disorganized.
The Scarlet & Gray took a while to get adjusted to the game speed, which could be attributed to not playing in a game situation in over a year, combined with the Fighting Illini already having played four games on the season heading into the matchup.
"First game in 20 months, there’s jitters, everyone’s nervous…” Rebel Hockey Head Coach Anthony Greener said. “They had to get into a rhythm, [but] once they settled in it was good.”
The Rebels continued to take penalties while upping the tempo of the game to be more physical. Max Johnson was the second Rebel to go to the box, this time for cross-checking after missing the net high on a rush.
The Rebels would kill both penalties off, and build momentum to begin taking control of the game.
Plays by forward Nick Flanders made a strong effort behind the Illinois cage to keep the puck alive and get off a centering pass showed the tenacity the team was playing with early on.
UNLV’s gradually increasing momentum would finally bubble over as captain Jared Erickson buried a shot from the low slot to put the Rebels on the board 1-0 at the 14:30 mark in the first period.
The first frame was not without any sort of dust-ups, seeing multiple shoving matches and scrums break out after almost every whistle.
This led to emotions running high, and a lot of extra stick work and shoves mixed into plays.
Neither group could stay composed, however, UNLV would be caught red-handed in the majority of retaliatory plays.
"They gotta look in the mirror,” Greener said, “not take so many dumb penalties and stay out of the stuff after the whistles, those are little things you can work on. Again, 20 months off, they're getting in the swing of things. Once we settle in it will be alright.”
The second period saw much of the same physicality, with scrum after scrum breaking out after every whistle.
The Rebels gained their first power-play of the season at the 16:47 mark of the period, however, they would not convert.
The Skatin Rebels almost gave up a short-handed goal after goaltender Zach Wickson made an ill-advised pass while playing the puck outside of his crease and turned it over to an Illini forechecker. Wickson stood tall and made the save, keeping the Rebels up by a goal.
Ezekiel Estrada showed off his hands by weaving through the Illinois zone to set up a fast sequence of passes leading to an A. Johnson goal.
The two-goal lead was short-lived, with Illinois Alexander Matveev scoring on a breakaway after Bradley Golant turned the puck over, walking the Rebel blue line.
A. Johnson would find the twine again, this time tallying the Rebels’ first power-play goal of the new season off of an assist from defenseman Jack Kennedy.
A. Johnson would ring the post early on in the third period, however, would not get a friendly bounce and the puck sailed over the net.
Burke took another penalty, however, UNLV would kill that penalty off and remain perfect on the PK for the rest of the night.
M. Johnson potted the final goal of the game for the Rebels off a tape-to-tape pass from Burke setting M. Johnson up backdoor for a tap-in. Flanders received the secondary assist.
The Illinois PP showed life once again, but the Rebels PK unit proved to be too effective for the Fighting Illini to find the back of the net.
The Rebels continued to take runs at Illinois players, resulting in more and more penalties to add up on the score sheet.
"There were a lot of retaliatory penalties,” Erickson said. “We definitely can't have that [Saturday] otherwise they will probably pot a couple more goals on the power-play.”
The Skatin Rebels hit the ice once again at City National Arena at 8 p.m. Saturday for a second date with the Fighting Illini.