Flames seek to tame Tigers, keep torching opponents' nets
September 26, 2013 | Lynchburg, Va.
Through four games, including two last weekend against American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I opponent West Virginia, Liberty University's ACHA DI men's hockey team features the top three scorers in the nation — senior defensman Jackson Kuhn (5 goals, 4 assists), freshman forward Robert Ward (3G, 6A), and junior forward Ryley Egan (4G, 5A), who are tied with nine points.
Senior forward Andrew McCombe (3G, 3A), junior defenseman Cam Bakker (4G, 1A), junior forward Lindsay LeBlanc (1G, 4A) also rank in the top 25 among ACHA scoring leaders.
Of course, those numbers are somewhat inflated by the Flames' 9-2 and 7-3 season-opening sweep of the Hampton Roads Junior "A" Whalers.
More importantly, Liberty, ranked No. 13 in the ACHA DI preseason poll, is 4-0 going into Friday night's match against Towson University at the LaHaye Ice Center. In the second game against the Mountaineers last Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va., the Flames rallied from a 3-1 deficit late in the second period to remain undefeated with a 6-3 victory.
"We're 4-0 now so this puts us in the position we hoped we'd be in at this point on the season and gets us ready to get into the heart of our schedule," Flames head coach Kirk Handy said. "The guys are working hard and we're looking forward to Towson this weekend. Every week, our goal is to get better and better. This is another test, another opportunity."
Handy wants to make sure Liberty doesn't look past the Tigers — a team it shredded on paper by a 41-7 total in four previous meetings — to next weekend's fall break road trip to Ohio University. The Bobcats, ranked third in the preseason ACHA DI poll, ended the Flames' season in the second round of the national tournament in Chicago last year.
Towson, meanwhile, returns the nucleus of a team that captured its first Division I league title in 14 years last February. The Tigers overcame a 2-0 deficit to upset top-seeded and then No. 14-ranked Navy 9-3 in the Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association championship game after routing Lehigh 8-4 in the first round and edging then-22nd-ranked Lebanon Valley 4-3 in the semifinals.
Like West Virginia, Towson also received votes in the ACHA Division I preseason poll released last Friday, as it had in last season's final rankings.
Scouting Preview, Game 5: Liberty University (4-0-0) vs. Towson University (1-1), Sept. 27 (7 p.m.) at the LaHaye Ice Center. A live webcast will be available through the Liberty Flames Sports Network.
Liberty Scouting Report: The Flames were forced to rally from behind for the first time last Saturday, showcasing their potent scoring punch by netting three goals in a span of 54 seconds early in the third period.
Showcasing a balanced attack, Liberty has outscored opponents by a 29-10 margin thus far, with contributions from 19 of their 21 players, excluding their three goalies. Surprisingly, defenders Kuhn, who netted the game-winner in the comeback at WVU, and Bakker rank first and second on the team, respectively, with five and four goals scored.
Freshman goalie Matt Pinel, who has recorded the second most minutes in goal (240) in ACHA DI, has started all four games in net for the Flames, allowing 2.50 goals per game and saving 91.4 percent of shots fired his way.
Also, Ward is tied for first in the nation with six assists and sophomore defender Steve Bellew has racked up a league-leading 34 penalty minutes.
Towson Scouting Report: Towson, which boasts a 36-man roster, has been Division I members of the ACHA since 1991, the year the league was founded. The Tigers advanced to the ACHA DI national tournament eight times in a nine-season span from 1996 to 2004, but haven't been back since.
Last weekend, the Tigers opened their season at home by splitting two games against Duquesne, losing the first 4-3 and winning the second 3-2 in a shootout. Mike Cifelli, who scored five goals and assisted three others against Navy in the ECHA final and was named tournament MVP, is the Tigers' top scoring threat after netting 27 goals and distributing 35 assists last year.
Steve Kelly, who was named the ECHA Tournament All Star, returns in goal. He logged nearly 1,700 out of a total of 2,000 minutes between the pipes last season, when he allowed 3.33 goals per game and saved 90 percent of incoming shots.
All-time series: Liberty is 4-0 against Towson with all four meetings coming in 2009-10, Tigers coach Edward Slusher's first season at the helm. The Flames dominated Towson in two home games, winning 10-1 and 12-2, before taming the Tigers in Baltimore, 11-1 and 8-3, to start the second semester.
Coaches: Handy is in his 14th season as the Flames' head coach, with an overall record of 283-122-13. This is Slusher's fifth season as Towson's head coach and he sports a career mark of 45-59-3.