Men’s D1 Flames impress in ACHA tournament debut, advance to quarterfinal after 7-2 triumph over Pittsburgh

After a season of ebbs and flows, the No. 5 Liberty Flames men’s D1 hockey team finally took the ice March 18 at the ACHA National Tournament in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

While Liberty hadn’t seen game action since Feb. 25, the product on the ice didn’t suggest it, as the team put an impressive 7-2 route of the Pittsburgh Panthers on display for all to see. The offensive showcase was an even one, with seven different goal scorers putting a puck in the net throughout the contest.

“It was great to not have to rely on one or two guys,” senior defenseman Colin Baird said. “We got everybody in the mix and got everybody their first touches in the tournament, which was great … it was a huge positive for us.”

The first of these goals came exactly three minutes after puck drop, as junior forward Kam Ottenbreit dished out a well-placed assist for junior forward D.J. Schwenke to bury in the net. The quick offensive action was exactly what Flames Head Coach Kirk Handy was hoping to see to kickstart tournament play.

Photo taken by Noah Seidlitz

“At the games at the national tournament, you want to have a quick start,” Handy said. “Scoring the first goal in the first three minutes was huge for us. Nice play by Kam Ottenbreit to intercept the puck, and Schwenke found the back of the net.”

The Pittsburgh Panthers, who entered the tournament fresh off an ESCHL Conference Championship, mustered a response just four minutes later, as junior forward Oldrich Virag sneaked one past senior goaltender Hunter Virostek to even the scoreboard.

It seemed the Panthers would further that lead as Flames defenseman Reid Bogenholm entered the penalty box for cross-checking. What ensued, however, was a methodical penalty kill that saw Liberty steal possession of the puck.

Without hesitation, senior forward Matt Bartel ripped a shot from the blue line that found its way into the back of the net. The shorthanded goal was Liberty’s second of the season, engulfing any energy the Panthers possessed.

Photo taken by Noah Seidlitz

“Special teams are real important this time of the year,” Handy said. “I know we talk about that a lot, but you get Matt Bartel with a shorthanded goal … Our PK was dynamite (today). We had made some adjustments, I like what we did, and it sure paid off.”

From the moment the puck hit the net, the Flames hit the ground running. Junior forward Nate Albers was the next to find twine off an assist from sophomore forward Aleksandr Charin. With five minutes remaining in the first period, freshman defenseman Lazarus Kaebel would let a one-timer fly on the power play that put his team up 4-1 entering the second. Kaebel’s goal was his eighth of the season and third with the man advantage.

“Boy, that power play, we only had that one chance, but it was a nice shot by Laz,” Handy said. “He’s an important part of our power play.”

The second would bring much of the same for Liberty, with junior forward Jacob Kalandyk putting one in just 2:54 into the start of the period. Charin then joined the party, unleashing a shot into the net off the assist from junior forward Joe Clark.

Photo taken by Noah Seidlitz

Despite the Panthers finding quality offensive chances, the reliable netminder Virostek consistently fended off shots, allowing his team to pull ahead to a comfortable lead.

“We’ve got 100% confidence in (Virostek),” Baird said. “We know he’s gonna shut the door, but we’ve got to make sure we’re taking care of business and not giving him any bad looks.”

The third period saw one more puck sneak past Pittsburgh goaltender Devin Barresi, as senior forward Brett Gammer found a rebound and buried it. While Liberty’s 7-1 lead would narrow ever so slightly with a late goal from Panthers’ Connor Stuewe, the Flames coasted to their first victory of the national tournament, making their quarterfinal matchup with the No. 4 UNLV Skating Rebels imminent.

The Flames and Rebels have met each other four times this season, with each pulling off a series sweep on the road. Now, on neutral ice, the two will face off to stay alive and advance to the semifinal round.

Photo taken by Noah Seidlitz

“UNLV’s a good team,” Baird said. “We need to be much better in the D-zone, play real good in the neutral zone and make smart plays. As long as we play a team game and don’t try to do it ourselves, I think we’ll be alright.”

While it was the Rebels who eliminated Liberty from the tournament last season in St. Louis, Missouri, the Flames will look to write a different script this time around. The battle will begin Sunday, March 19 at 10:15 a.m. EST, with all games streaming exclusively on HockeyTV.

“It’ll be a great game … We’re looking forward to it,” Handy said. “We’ll refine tonight and get better for tomorrow.”

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

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