Red-hot Flames set to entertain No. 20 Arizona at LaHaye
October 10, 2013 | Lynchburg, Va.
Though it dropped a spot to No. 14 in last week's second American Collegiate Hockey Association poll, Liberty University's ACHA Division I men's hockey team has gotten off to one of the fastest starts in the nation.
The Flames (7-0), who host Arizona (2-2) this Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the LaHaye Ice Center, are tied with Iowa State for the ACHA's best record. Only Central Oklahoma (8-3), the Wildcats' Western Collegiate Hockey League rival, which features the nation's top four scorers, has won more games.
Liberty has five players with 10 points or more, led by senior captain and forward Andrew McCombe and freshman forward Robert Ward (tied for sixth with six goals and seven assists each). Ward scored the only goal in the Flames' second-game win Saturday night over Ohio, where they staged a rare sweep of the Bobcats on their home ice.
"For us, we feel like we've got a strong core and it comes down to our guys working hard, and getting contributions up and down the lineup," Liberty head coach Kirk Handy said. "We have confidence in all of our players in different situations."
Last January in Tucson, the Flames staged dramatic third-period comebacks in a two-game sweep of Arizona. Liberty scored five third-period goals, including two by Ryley Egan, to erase a 5-2 deficit in a 7-6 opener before getting a hat trick from Luke Baumgarten and rallying from a late 5-4 deficit in a 7-5 second-game win.
The Wildcats, who finished 15-22-1 last year, were ranked No. 20 in the final ACHA DI national poll, but didn't receive a bid to the national tournament. They were bumped out by College Hockey Mid-America champion John Carroll, Liberty's first-round opponent in the tournament.
"Arizona has a good team and they're well coached," Handy said. "In my opinion, they should have been there."
He is hopeful the Flames can extend their season-opening winning streak longer than last year, when they started out red-hot at 8-0 before going ice-cold and losing nine of their next 10, with their only win during that span over then-No. 1-ranked Ohio.
"The big thing for us is focusing on our work ethic and what we can control to make us successful," Handy said. "We want to make sure we're taking care of our team. That's our focus right now."
Scouting Preview, Games 8-9: No. 20 Arizona (2-2) at No. 14 Liberty (7-0), Oct. 11 and 12 (7 p.m.) at the LaHaye Ice Center. Live webcasts of both games will be aired through the Liberty Flames Sports Network.
Liberty Scouting Report: Behind McCombe and Ward, the Flames' volatile attack is sparked by junior forward Lindsay LeBlanc and senior defenseman Jackson Kuhn (5G, 6A each). Other major points contributors include junior forward Egan (5G, 5A), sophomore defenseman Steven Bellew (Liberty's leader with eight assists), and sophomore forward Danny Logan 2G, 5A), who assisted Ward's game-winner at Ohio.
Playing without injured junior defenseman Matt Sherry, the Flames gave up six goals in their first game at Ohio before posting their second shutout in three games to complete the sweep. Freshman goalie Matt Pinel lowered his goals-against average to 2.67 and raised his save percentage to 90.8 through six games after senior Blair Bennett earned a shutout in his only start, Sept. 27 against Towson.
Arizona Scouting Report: Arizona opened its season with 5-1 and 5-3 victories over Northern Arizona and was ranked No. 20 after the second ACHA DI poll. But that was before the Wildcats were swept by No. 2 Arizona State, which extended its winning streak in the in-state rivalry to 34 games with 5-1 and 6-0 routs.
ASU and Oklahoma were the preseason favorites in the WCHL, with Arizona predicted to finish fourth behind Central Oklahoma and only ahead of newcomers Colorado State and Colorado, which moved up from ACHA DII this year.
The Wildcats' attack is led by Ansel Ivens-Anderson, who has scored two goals and distributed two assists in four games. Shane Gleason leads the defensemen with four points off a goal and three assists. Between the pipes, Dylon Hojnacki has allowed 4.00 goals and posted a .910 save percentage in three games. Arizona's penalty kill has been stellar this season, squelching 90 percent of opponents' power-play opportunities.
All-time series: Liberty is 5-1 against Arizona including the two-game sweep at the Tucson Convention Center last January. The Flames and Wildcats split two games at LaHaye last season, with Arizona winning the first 4-2 before Liberty took the second 5-2.
Coaches: Handy is in his 14th season as the Flames' head coach with an overall record of 286-122-14. Sean Hogan is in his second season as head coach of the Wildcats and has a 28-44-2 mark. The two coaches have enjoyed a competitive coaching relationship for several seasons, starting when Hogan played and coached at Oakland (Mich.) and their teams met in the 2006 ACHA DII national championship game.
"Both programs have mutual respect for one another and we've had a great history against teams coached by Sean Hogan," Handy said. "It will be another great opportunity to renew the rivalry."