Stingy defense, potent powerplay key to 12th straight victory
Liberty Men’s Hockey notched its 12th straight victory Friday, Feb. 2, against Western Michigan in the first matchup in the program’s history. Liberty also won its 14th of its last 15 games and claimed the ESCHL regular season title last week.
Liberty’s stingy defense and dominant power-play performance were two keys to the victory Friday night. The Flames scored on three of their six power-play opportunities while killing off five of six penalty kills. The team also allowed only 24 shots on goal while getting 35 shots through the Western Michigan defense.
Junior defenseman Zane Schartz tallied his first of three points early in the first period, scoring a power-play goal on the assists from forwards Zechariah Roberts and ESCHL-leading scorer Grant Garvin.
Forward Brock Thompson got the scoring started early in the second, scoring a power-play goal less than two minutes into the period with tic-tac-toe passes from Schartz and Garvin. Western Michigan responded to the early 2-0 deficit by scoring an unassisted goal at the 10:37 mark and a power-play goal less than two minutes later to tie the game at two.
With Western Michigan gaining momentum back and taking the breath out of the home crowd, forwards Devin Pierce and Jordan Bochinski passed to defenseman Garrett Nelson, who scored on the powerplay. Freshman forward Ryan Cox later scored on a feed from Schartz, who had a beautiful deke and pass with less than a minute left in the second period.
Head coach Kirk Handy highlighted this as the turning point in the game, as it brought momentum back to the team.
With a 4-2 lead after two, Liberty just had to play a strong last 20 minutes to notch its 12th win in a row. It was nothing short of excitement, as they had to kill off four powerplays in a 12-minute span. Goalie Cole Burack stopped the first seven shots in the third period, with a goal slipping though the five-hole with less than six seconds left in the game, making the final score 4-3.
While Liberty won the game and had some great special teams play, other aspects in the game were not as strong.
“I didn’t think we played very well,” Handy said. “I thought that we were kind of soft, and I didn’t feel that we brought the effort that we needed there to be successful.”
Since the Flames already clinched their regular season conference title, Handy suggested one of the reasons behind the team’s struggles may have been complacency.
“That’s tough and that was part of our problem tonight,” Handy said.
Liberty also struggled in the faceoff circle early on, especially on their end. Handy said after their early struggles, he feels they challenged the centers to do a better job in the faceoff circle.
“I think we just challenged the centermen,” Handy said. “I think we have great centermen on this team, and we had to challenge them a little bit.”
Despite their early problems with faceoffs, the team was able to have lots of possession times, but they just could not seem to be able to get that extra pass or shot past the defense.
“I think we have to have a little more attitude around the net that we want to make something happen,” Handy said.
Handy also said that while the team struggled to get more pucks to the net, he still has faith in his team. He commends his team.
“Those guys are talented, and we just have to get them open, have some quick puck movement and be able to get them the puck,” Handy said.
While the Flames did manage to get off 35 shots and score four goals, Handy said that was not enough to be content with their effort.
All that aside, the team did play well on both sides of special teams. They had great power-play opportunities and made the most of them.
“Our powerplay was huge for us tonight,” Handy said. “Our powerplay was one of the reasons our team won.”
The penalty kill was also a key contributor to the win. Especially toward the end of the game, it was a key that helped influence the outcome of the game.
Physicality, Handy said, was another huge factor in the Flames win. They were constantly laying players out on the ice, whether they were defending their teammates or defending themselves. It was a very physical game, and Liberty was able to come away with big hits.
After the game, Handy also said the team is going to start preparing for the ESCHL playoffs and beyond “right now.”
“We have a well-balanced team, and we need to be able to score up and down the lineup,” Handy said.
He said he is very confident in his team and believes in the skill his team has. He said the team is very well-balanced and well-rounded, and he is looking forward to the playoffs.