‘Deep’ UNLV hockey team begins season at NCAA D-I University of Denver

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UNLV hockey goalie Zach Wickson defends the net during a practice in this month. Photo by Lucas Peltier/UNLV Hockey.

There are a lot of words being used to describe the depth on this year’s UNLV hockey team.

Defenseman Hunter Muzzillo called the depth “ridiculous,” in a good way, and forward Brenden Fehlig called it “strong.”

It was a point of emphasis in the offseason for UNLV to build up its depth as they look to compete for a national championship this season. Head coach Anthony Vignieri-Greener believes he and his staff have accomplished that.

“It’s the deepest team we’ve ever had,” Greener said about this year’s team.

The Skatin’ Rebels begin their season when they face NCAA Division-I champions, the University of Denver Saturday night.

UNLV is coming off its best season in program history. The Skatin’ Rebels finished with a 26-5 regular season record and made it to the semifinals of the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division-I national tournament. 

The loss was tough to swallow for the team, coming up short of winning a national championship while making their deepest run in the tournament in school history.

Muzzillo said the mindset of the team has shifted to expecting to compete for national championships. He cited the feeling after last year’s semifinal loss to Central Oklahoma as fuel for this year’s team to finish the job this year.

“It showed us that we could (compete for a national championship),” Muzzillo said. “Just being that close and dealing with the emotions of that heartbreak is something that everybody inside of the locker room is going to do everything to avoid (that feeling).”

UNLV brought in several new recruits to the team, including former Division-I player Azzaro Tinling (University of Vermont) and University of Wisconsin-Superior transfer goalie Landon Pavlisin. 

Assistant coach Nick Robone said the new guys have adjusted well to the culture. He believes they can be put in the lineup at any time to be effective.

“Yes, we have depth, but everyone has bought into their role and what we expect from them,” Robone said. “We’ll be successful with that moving forward if we keep that up.”

Returning players say the new recruits are already making an immediate impact. 

“We brought in a lot of skilled guys,” Fehlig said. “Everyone’s been skating well and making good plays. I feel like we’re more consistent this year because of that depth. Everyone’s making a play every day.”

Greener said opening their season against the reigning NCAA Division-I champions will present an opportunity to showcase the program to a wider audience. He’s looking for his team to stick to their systems and compete for all three periods. 

Both Greener and Robone believe this game and their three games against the University of Alaska at Anchorage, another Division-I opponent, will provide an opportunity to get them ready for a tough ACHA schedule and a run in the national tournament. 

Players are looking forward to playing the University of Denver. Fehlig said he is eager to see where they stand against Denver and Muzzillo said he’s looking forward to the challenge of playing at Denver.

Robone said this opportunity is part of their long-term goal of growing the program. Playing Division-I opponents and recruiting NCAA level talent has been the goal of the program to possibly make that jump to the Division-I level.

Right now, the program is focused on consistently being one of the top programs at the ACHA level. The Skatin’ Rebels are ranked No. 2 in the ACHA preseason poll. Robone said they are making sure the team is embracing the raised standards this season.

“We want to be the team everyone’s gunning for and having a target on our back,” Robone said. “You’re going to get everyone’s best effort every night, which should elevate our game. That means we need to bring our best effort.”

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