Flames prepare for playoffs with rematch of 2006 DII final
February 6, 2014 | Lynchburg, Va.
Liberty University's ACHA Division I men's hockey team slipped one spot to No. 4 in this week's 18th regular-season rankings after going 1-0-1 against No. 9 Delaware last weekend at Fred Rust Arena, site of the March 6-11 ACHA DI National Championships.
The Flames (24-6-2) will seek to build momentum for nationals as they open a five-game regular-season-ending homestand Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. against No. 15 Oakland (Mich.) University at the LaHaye Ice Center.
Liberty lost a tight contest to the Grizzlies in the 2006 ACHA DII national championship game. Both teams moved up to DI the following year and have developed an extremely competitive rivalry over the past eight seasons.
"They're a long-time rival of ours and we always enjoy having the opportunity to play Oakland," Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said. "Ever since we played them for the DII national title in 2006, we've played them multiple times all but one year."
The Flames swept the Grizzlies by identical 5-3 scores Nov. 22-23 in Grand Rapids, Mich., with all four of Liberty's offensive lines scoring in both games.
"We believe in all of the guys we have and we're looking for a complete team effort," Handy said. "All four lines up front can chip in offensively and they can all play both ways."
He said the Flames need to focus on the fundamental execution of their game plan and avoid drawing too many penalties against Oakland, as they did two weeks ago when they were swept by top-ranked Arizona State at LaHaye.
"If we can play five-on-five hockey, stay disciplined and out of the penalty box, it'll be a good thing for us," Handy said.
Scouting Preview, Games 33-34: No. 15 Oakland (18-13-1) vs. No. 4 Liberty (24-6-2), Feb. 7 and 8 (7 p.m.) at the LaHaye Ice Center. Both games will be webcast live through the Liberty Flames Sports Network.
Liberty scouting report: As a testament to their balance on offense, the Flames feature eight players who have scored more than 20 points on the season and another six who are in double-digits in scoring. Three forwards — junior Lindsay LeBlanc (16G, 22A), freshman Robert Ward (14G, 25A), and senior forward and captain Andrew McCombe (15G, 22A) – have racked up 30 points or more with senior defenseman and assistant captain Jackson Kuhn ranking fourth with 12 goals and 22 assists.
Defensively, the Flames have returned two key players from injury in the new year — senior captain Matt Sherry and DII call-up Brandon Cox — while fellow sophomore Kyle Miller is still rehabilitating from his injry. They have provided much-needed support to Kuhn as well as freshman Chase Harris, sophomore Steven Bellew, junior Cam Bakker, and senior Caleb Grow.
Senior goalie Blair Bennett (12-4-1, 2.50 goals-against average, 0.91 save percentage) improved to 9-0 with a 39-save performance in the second game at Oakland. Freshman counterpart Matt Pinel (12-3, 3.08 GAA, 0.90 SP), who started out 9-1, has been nearly as impressive, making 44 saves in a 4-3 victory at Arizona on Jan. 18 to avenge his first loss.
Oakland scouting report: The Golden Grizzlies have gone 8-3 since being swept by the visiting Flames, who have cooled off to go 5-3-2 since then. Two of Oakland's losses came by 7-5 scores to defending ACHA DI National Champion Minot State. Last weekend, it completed a first-ever five-game season sweep of rival Davenport with a shootout win in nearby Grand Rapids, Mich.
The Grizzlies' attack, which has netted 156 goals on the season, is fueled by junior forwards Billy Balent (21G, 30A) and Anthony Colizza (18G, 32A), who rank 10th and 11th, respectively, in the nation in scoring. Senior forward David Merkle (14G, 20A) is Oakland's third-leading scorer followed by freshman forward Ryan Rotandi (19G, 12A) and senior forward Frank Matyok (10G, 20A).
Junior Corey Hrischuk (16-10, 3.42 GAA, 0.90 SP) has started most of the Golden Grizzlies' games in goal, posting two shutouts.
All-time series: The Flames hold a 13-10-2 record against the Grizzlies after a sweep at Oakland Nov. 22-23. Liberty lost three out of four matchups last season, including both at LaHaye last Feb. 8-9.
Coaches: Kirk Handy, in his 14th season as Flames head coach, has an overall record of 303-127-15. Oakland is 18-13-1 in its first season under Gordie Schaeffler, who is in his ninth season with the Golden Grizzles overall.