While Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh men's basketball teams will face off in the anticipated annual City Game on Dec. 1 on the basketball court at PPG Paints Arena, there was a different rendition of the City Game played on Friday night.
Duquesne and Pitt's American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I club ice hockey programs squared off at PPG Paints Arena in the City Game on Ice, a game where Pitt prevailed, 3-1.
It was a big game, on an even bigger stage for two teams jockeying for position in their conference standings. Each school is a member of the College Hockey Mid-America conference and are both off to good starts this season. While Pitt (10-5-0-0) won the conference last year and earned a bid to nationals, Duquesne (10-8-0-1) took the season series last year, two games to none, and finished second in the conference.
"We had the idea to try to put this together since the summer," Duquesne head coach Conrad Waite said. "We got to the PPG Paints Arena staff, who were great working with us since day one. It's been a special experience for our guys, and I couldn't be more appreciative of all the help from the Penguins and the arena."
"There's a big-time excitement for the game," Pitt head coach Stu Rulnick said. "I think it's a great experience from them."
The game was high-paced and a physical contest, with both teams were amped up to be playing at an NHL venue as the contest provided a unique opportunity in the middle of each team's schedule. The two teams regularly call Alpha Ice Complex in Harmar home.
The City Game on Ice was last played at the Penguins' home rink in 2011, then known as the CONSOL Energy Center. There was a lot of the excitement on each campus heading into tonight's contest. While often falling victim to each university's different NCAA sports, tonight the spotlight was entrenched on the two Pittsburgh school's club hockey programs.
"It was nice to get our name out there," Duquesne forward Jason Bechtel said. "It was definitely a huge step for our organization, and Pitt's too."
"This is big, because with club hockey you don't get a lot of recognition a lot of places," Panthers forward J.D. Oddi said. "Playing a venue like this, we usually get 20 people at a game, and there were a few hundred tonight. Just getting that many people to the game, and excited for a club hockey game, is awesome."
Duquesne University President Ken Gormley provided a ceremonial puck drop in front of the fans packed into the lower bowl, filling up each seat of three sections used along with the KeyBank Club level. It provided an enthralling atmosphere as attendance was roughly split between each team while school allegiances were divided by the red line.
Pitt tallied first, as the Panthers' Craig Mazotta found the puck in the crease and stuffed it past Duquesne goaltender Alexander Taylor. The Panthers pushed their lead to two halfway through the first period when Oddi tipped home a point shot from Brenden Walch.
The Dukes answered in the second period, as Duquesne's Luke Gross sent a pass to Bechtel, who slipped behind the Panthers defense and outwaited Pitt goaltender Matthew Snader to cut the lead in half. In the third period with Duquesne pressing to draw even, Pitt's Daniel Merz cut behind the net for a wraparound goal with 5:13 remaining in the period to cement the win.
The game ended with a handshake between the two teams and a stick salute to the fans in attendance. The lead-up to the game, seeing the players on the ice over an hour before the game, warming up, joking around, and taking in the atmosphere showed how special of a game tonight was for the players on each side. The players hope that it's a stepping stone to something that could become an annual occurrence, the City Game on Ice.
"It's a really cool experience," Oddi said. "Everyone was excited to experience this. Where we usually play, you don't get treated like this, you don't get these nice big locker rooms, where everything is set up and decked out. The ice is honestly perfect. Playing Duquesne, a cross-city rival, the game is always a big game anyway, to get to do it here at this venue is just unbelievable. If this is something that could continue on, I bet you it this would become one of the best things for club hockey.
"It's something that everyone is going to remember."