Men’s D1 falls short in overtime period to No. 1 Minot State

Claiming a spot in the ACHA Final Four for the third time in program history, only the Minot State Beavers stood between the men’s D1 Flames and their first trip to the national title game in program history.

While Liberty exhibited a gutsy performance on the ice, forcing the tournament’s No. 1 seed to an overtime period, the Beavers would find the game-winner in sudden death and declare a spot in the ACHA National Championship.

“It was so tough. I’m super proud of our guys,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “I thought they played hard all weekend. It was the culmination of a great year.”

It was the Flames who handed a loss to the Beavers in their final series at the LaHaye Ice Center on Feb. 24, the Beavers’ just third downfall of the season. Having not dropped back-to-back games all year, Minot responded the following night with a 5-3 victory. Now, set to meet in a Final Four clash, the Flames understood the task that lay before them.

Photo taken by Noah Seidlitz

“Coming into it, obviously they’re the No. 1 ranked team for a reason,” junior forward Nate Albers said. “They’re a good team, and we knew, hey, this is gonna be a battle until the last minute, so we’ve got to lay our bodies on the line and play like there’s no tomorrow.”

This plan of action was evident early on, with Flames finding ways to block shots using any tactic possible throughout the opening minutes of the contest. Midway through the first period, Liberty found a rhythm, putting consistent shots on the net of Minot goaltender Jake Anthony.

The first of these shots slipped through when defenseman Captain Colin Baird walked the blue line and sent a puck to the front of the net from the top of the left circle. Senior forward Truett Olson located the rebound, burying the puck in the top right corner of the net to give Liberty the opening advantage.

Then, a mere 15 seconds before the first intermission, sophomore defenseman Nate Cox sent another shot from deep in the Beaver zone, where junior forward Jacob Kalandyk nudged the puck over to Olson who found the net once again. Holding a 2-0 lead on the No. 1 team, the Flames bench was buzzing.

Photo taken by Noah Seidlitz

They remained aware, however, that the Beavers are connoisseurs of the comeback.

“We didn’t want to sit back, we wanted to go for it,” Handy said. “We wanted to be as aggressive as we could.”

While the second period was a scoreless one, it was clear that Minot was finding its footing. The Beavers managed to tighten up in their defensive zone, holding the Flames to a mere six shots on goal in the period while putting up 20 of their own. Every shot that came senior goaltender Hunter Virostek’s way, however, was turned away. The netminder ended the night with an astounding 61 saves.

“Hunter stood on his head. He was fantastic for us,” Handy said.

In the third period, Minot continued pushing, with a rocket fired Virostek’s way by freshman forward Christian Kadolph just seconds into the final period. The goaltender, however, would turn it away.

A slashing penalty on the Flames just minutes later handed the Beavers the man advantage for the second time that night. Freshman forward Joey Moffatt then ripped a shot from the top of the slot, deflecting off Virostek and finding the stick of graduate forward David Sheldon, who lifted it to the top of the net.

While Liberty managed to fend off the Beavers for most of the remaining time, Minot found the equalizer with just 3:51 on the clock, as sophomore forward Josh Pederson struck a one-timer from the left side of the crease. The contest was now tied, with an overtime period determining who would receive a spot in the championship.

Having defeated the Indiana Tech Warriors in an overtime period the night prior, the Beavers strutted on the ice with the intention of repeating the achievement. Minot outshot Indiana 49-22 in the contest and would do the same to the Flames with a shot differential of 64-31 by the end of the game.

Photo taken by Noah Seidlitz

Minot shots soared at Virostek from all over the ice in the sudden death period, and an elbowing penalty from the Flames gave the Beavers the chance to intensify the pressure on the man advantage.

Just seconds after the penalty was killed, however, Kadolph served up the puck for Moffatt, who fired a one-timer from the right circle. The shot deflected off Virostek’s glove and found its place in the back of the net. As the Beavers roared in celebration, the Flames came to the realization that their postseason run had found its end.

However, as they always do, the team kept their heads up, gathering with Minot for a word of prayer at center ice before exiting the arena.

“I’m mostly proud of our guys because we have teams after the game who want to pray with us, and that’s something that we’ve really tried to develop especially with Colin (Baird) and Cedric (LeSieur) and some of the guys on our team,” Handy said. “We’ve tried to develop that into who we are.”

Albers stood above the two teams and led the prayer, something he recognizes as an integral asset for the character to his team.

“That’s a big part of who we want to be as a program, being able to pray with the other team after the game, after a loss or a win regardless,” Albers said. “It just speaks to who we are as a team and how we play and treat the other team.”

While saying goodbye to the hard-fought season is difficult, having to say goodbye to the seniors brings an added heartache. The mark they’ve made on Liberty hockey, however, will not diminish any time soon.

“The guys graduating, they’ve built such a good culture on our team, and it’s so fun to watch that start to develop with some of the younger guys,” Albers said. “It took a lot of heart to get where we were, and obviously it hurts losing, but we fought really hard up until the last minute.”

As the Flames exit the ACHA National Tournament, Handy hopes his team will hold its head high, reflecting on the sheer vigor it took to make it this far.

“All the things we’ve had to go through with Josh Fricks and the ups and downs, I’m not disappointed,” Handy said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t move on, but I’m not disappointed in our team. I think the team played great. I love those guys and the relationships we have in there.”

Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter

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