Men’s D1 hockey defeats UNLV 3-1
Last year, March 13 was the night the Flames’ national tournament campaign came to a disheartening end, losing in the ACHA Quarterfinal round to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Rebels.
Much has changed since those two battled for a berth in the Final Four. Yet, just over one year later, the Flames and Rebels would find themselves meeting on quarterfinal ice once again.
This dogfight, however, would go the way of the Flames this time around as the men’s D1 team brawled with the Rebels for 60 minutes and snatched a trip to the ACHA Final Four with a 3-1 victory.
“Every time we play (UNLV), it’s a good game,” Flames Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “Of course, it goes right down to the wire, and the games are always tight … I liked the way our guys battled and hung in there for a gutsy win.”
As the puck dropped, energies were high on the ice, and the speed the Flames skated with was apparent. The Liberty offensive attack that put seven pucks in the net the day prior was looking to do the same, hurling shots at UNLV goaltender Landon Pavlisin.
A mere six minutes into the contest, it was freshman defenseman Grant Morton who would ignite the flame, unleashing a shot from the left side that found the stick of senior forward Matt Bartel, who buried it in the net. The swift 1-0 lead was precisely what Liberty was hoping for to pave the path to victory.
“These games can be won and lost in the first 10 minutes,” senior defenseman Captain Colin Baird said. “We knew they’d press hard, and we were ready for it.”
While a hooking penalty on sophomore forward Jacob Kalandyk gave UNLV the chance to get its foot back in the door, Liberty’s penalty kill was efficient as ever, stealing the puck from its opponent and dumping it into Rebel territory. UNLV went 0-3 on the power play on the day.
While the Flames’ pace persisted in the second period, their efforts didn’t initially pay off. Regardless, Liberty knew well from the team’s previous four meetings this season that to overtake the Rebels, deviating from the game plan was not an option.
“When we played them at their place, all lines were going, and everyone was just playing their game,” Kalandyk said. “We all knew that’s what we had to do, and we stuck to our roles and kept battling.”
With 12:30 to go in the second, freshman defenseman Lazarus Kaebel sent one to the front of the net, where senior forward Jackson Vercellono managed to sneak the puck past Pavlisin and give his team the 2-0 advantage. The goal was Vercellono’s 11th on the season.
Entering the third period with a two-goal edge, only 20 minutes stood between the Flames and a ticket to the semifinal. The building excitement, however, was pummeled as Rebels forward Paxton Malone unleashed a puck past Liberty goaltender Hunter Virostek.
As UNLV began to control possession of the puck in Liberty’s zone, shots started pouring from the Rebels.
A series of these shots in Liberty’s zone, however, was singlehandedly turned away by Kalandyk, who laid his body across the ice to maintain the lead. Kalandyk’s persistence was noticed by every single Flame on the bench, as they chanted their teammate’s name in approval.
“That’s a momentum-builder for our team when you see a guy like that laying out to block shots,” Baird said. “It inspires you to go out there and do the same thing. I think everybody on that bench knew we were coming out with that win, and that was a crucial shift for us with Kalandyk.”
Desperate to find the equalizer, the Rebels pulled Pavlisin from the net and urgently rained shots on Virostek. The netminder, as he has all season, stood on his head, tallying 36 saves in the contest.
“Hunter shut the door, he played great all night, and we rely on him,” Baird said. “At the end of the day, guys were blocking shots on the front end and the back end.”
Before the Rebels could get a shot to slip through, junior forward D.J. Schwenke hurled a puck across the ice that found the empty net. As the horn sounded, Flames swarmed Schwenke, realizing that a trip to the Final Four was now imminent.
Just seconds later, it became official that Liberty was destined for its third Final Four appearance in program history.
“That was probably the best win we’ve had all year,” Kalandyk said. “But the job’s not done. We’ve got to come back tomorrow and keep playing.”
While the opponent Liberty will face in the semifinal is yet to be determined, the preparation for the matchup on March 20 remains the same for the Flames.
“Getting good rest and sticking to our routine has been really big for us all week,” Baird said. “We have to trust each other to follow that and stay focused on the game without getting too nervous. Staying loose, having fun, playing skilled hockey — we love that.”
Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter