The comeback kids: Lady Flames mount semifinal resurgence to claim ACHA National Championship berth
Facing a three-goal deficit in the final minutes of the second period of the national tournament semifinal, many teams would see the comeback as insurmountable. But the Lady Flames had something to defend on the ice March 19 as they clashed with the Adrian Bulldogs — a National Championship title.
Rather than backing down, Liberty laid everything they had on the ice, mounting an astonishing comeback and once again securing a spot in the ACHA National Championship game.
Entering the semifinal contest Sunday evening, the Lady Flames were aware that defeating their rival Bulldogs in the postseason would be no easy feat. As the puck dropped, both teams had a speed suited for the playoffs.
It was the Lady Flames, however, who would strike first, as junior forward Brityn Fussy found herself on the breakaway just five minutes into the game, making a move that fooled Adrian goaltender Reid Bahr and netting the puck from the right crease.
While Liberty held the early advantage, they would soon find themselves playing catch-up in the contest.
Adrian’s specialty teams units were elite in the early going, and just four minutes after Fussy opened scoring, freshman forward Macy Piche would respond with a shorthanded, top-shelf score.
On the PK, Adrian played with savvy, managing to hold the Lady Flames scoreless with a 5-on-3 opportunity late in the first.
The teams entered the second period even. But just 18 seconds into the second, sophomore forward Tess McKerrow would put another top-shelf puck past Flames freshman goaltender Alex Keith.
The lead was then cushioned by a power play goal from sophomore forward Hailey Wiltshire, who found herself face-to-face with Keith and hurled the puck to the left corner to lift her team to a 3-1 advantage.
“This is the most adversity we saw,” Fussy said. “But we know how to deal with and how to turn it around and keep going.”
While the Lady Flames would keep fighting, Adrian’s speed only increased as the Bulldogs realized that upsetting the tournament’s No. 1 seed was now a true possibility. With just four minutes remaining in the second, Piche would dig a deeper hole for Liberty to escape, stealing the puck from junior forward Carly Glover and finding the net on goaltender Amanda Storey.
Glover would later leave the game with a knee injury, one that motivated her team to fight back in her honor.
Before the second period could come to a close, sophomore forward Haley Battles slightly narrowed the deficit, scoring on the power play off of an assist from Fussy and shifting the scoreboard to 4-2 entering intermission.
In the fifteen minutes between periods, the Lady Flames understood the task that lay before them.
“We prayed, but even Carly (Glover) coming in, it was very emotional,” Fussy said. “We wanted to win for her because she put her body on the line for us. We really wanted to bring the energy just for her.”
Having lost just three games all season, a deficit in the third is something Liberty has seen before.
“To sit there between the second and third periods and just look them in the eye, we just have a feel,” Head Coach Chris Lowes said. “That’s leadership, that’s our vets, that’s our captains. We found a way.”
The Lady Flames indeed found a way as they stepped on the ice for a thrilling third period. A power play unit that had been struggling early on would find its second goal, as Battles opened scoring in the third, backhanding in a shot from Aislyn Stretch that cut the game to a mere one-goal deficit.
“(Battles) is amazing,” Fussy said. “She knows how to put the puck away and just how to grind, so she did a really great job today.”
With just four minutes to play, Liberty found itself on its seventh power play of the night. Fussy unleashed a shot from the right circle that found the stick of graduate forward Shelby Bradford, who tipped it in to astonish the arena as the game was now an even contest.
“It’s not just the power plays,” Lowes said. “It’s not just the execution of them, it’s the girls who are in them. Girls like Brielle (Fussy) and Hailey (Battles) and Brityn (Fussy), girls that just battled all night long.”
It became evident that an overtime period would decide who gets a ticket to the ACHA National Championship game, and both teams were fighting for their lives in sudden death.
Reliable netminder Storey was fighting off the Adrian attack, turning away shots from every location. Then, as Liberty took possession of the puck in Bulldog territory, senior forward Yannick Truter unleashed a slapshot that soared past Bahr and found that back of the net.
The comeback was completed, and the Lady Flames were heading back to the National Championship.
“Sports, that’s what it brings,” Lowes said. “Incredible moments like that to come back from two down … To even get that moment and get (Yannick Truter) in that position to finish that goal, it’s crazy and it’s a game we’ll all remember.”
While celebrations and cheers engulfed the arena, there was also the aching pain of defeat, as the Adrian Bulldogs left the ice just shy of a stunning upset over the Lady Flames.
“Really, my heart goes out to Adrian,” Lowes said. “They’re one of our biggest rivals, one of our most respected opponents, and this sport can be cruel. They earned that one. That being said, I’m incredibly proud of our girls.”
All that now stands between the four-time defending national champions and another trophy is the Minot State Beavers — one of the three teams who claimed victory over the Lady Flames this season. The puck will drop in the championship on March 20 at 1 p.m. at the New England Sports Center, with the game streaming exclusively on HockeyTV.
Annie Cory is the Sports Editor at the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter @anniecory1