Welcome back to another edition of Palsgrove’s Points. Hockey is back on the Mountain, and I honestly don’t feel good about it. Not the sport; I love hockey and I’m elated to watch some great games, I’m worried about the team — the Flames men’s D1 team, to be clear. As always, any opinions I give I wholly believe, and if you have any issue with that, feel free to write a letter to the editor.
The Flames ended their 2022-23 campaign in a loss, falling to the Minot State Beavers 3-2 in overtime in the ACHA Semifinals. Then, to begin this season, the Flames went up against Minot State and got whooped by the Beavers. In the first game, the Flames lost 4-2, which they followed up by losing 5-3 after an open-netter sealed the win for the Beavers.
I know that beginning sounds really disappointing, but there are a few good takeaways from this first real matchup for the Flames.
This team would be dead in the water without its two superstars
Ok that’s kind of obvious, most sports teams would be. Who would the Warriors be without Curry? Who would the Chiefs be without Mahomes? But over the past weekend it was made incredibly apparent how much the Flames need consistent, top-level production from senior goaltender Hunter Virostek and junior forward Jacob Kalandyk.
Over the Flames’ two games against Minot, Kalandyk scored two of Liberty’s five goals, both of which came off over gorgeous wristers from the forward. Along with his goalscoring ability, Kalandyk helps this Flames offense run the way it needs to. His presence on the ice pulls defenders away from the net, and his ability to go tape-to-tape with his teammates leads to him being one of the team leaders in assists. Through three games, he has just one, but that number is sure to rise over the season. Last season he was tied for fourth on the team in assists.
As talented as Kalandyk is on the offensive side of the ice, Virostek is just as talented, if not more so. In his three games this season, he’s allowed 10 goals, but he’s saved more than 92 percent of the shots that have come his way, according to the ACHA. Virostek, through just three games, has saved 119 shots. He is singlehandedly keeping the Flames in games, and desperately defending his cage.
Here are some stats to back up that last paragraph, Virostek has 119 saves and a 92.2 save percentage through the Flames first three games. In his 21 starts last season, he had a very similar save percentage of 92.1 percent, and 668 saves over those 21 games. If Virostek continues this season based on what we’ve seen through three games, he will save around 819 shots. That is a 151 plus save difference between this season and last. The Flames desperately need to get their goalie some help, because as absolutely dominant as Virostek has been, no team with hopes of a natty can allow this many shots and hope to win it all.
The Flames need to figure out their defense
On that note, someone needs to step up and start defending on this Flames team. Colin Baird has graduated, which means that Flames lost one of their best defenders in program history, but even with that loss the defense shouldn’t have regressed this much. But along with Baird’s departure came injuries to two of the Flames better defenders, sophomores Reid Bogenholm and Grant Morton. When the pair returns, I would imagine the defense will take a step up, but until then, someone needs to step up.
One of the reasons for this, and in my opinion, the main reason for the Flames lack of defense so far this season, is because of how many offensive-minded defensemen the Flames trot out onto the ice. The two examples that immediately come to mind are sophomore Laz Kaebel and junior newcomer Kevin Bite. Kaebel in his first season at Liberty established himself as a sharpshooter. He had the fifth most goals on the team, and easily the most of any defenseman. Bite, in his first three games for Liberty, has two goals and one assist for three total points.
Now, I’m not saying that goals and assists are a bad thing for defenders to accumulate, but in this instance, they help to back up my point that the Flames defenders don’t really specialize on the defensive end. What this team needs right now is a lockdown, stay-at-home defender who can consistently break up opposing team’s possessions. And without Baird and Bogenholm, it really doesn’t.
Something that might make sense for this team is to transition one of its many forwards to a fulltime, stay-at-home defenseman. The first name that came to mind for me was junior Nate Albers. Albers plays an incredible physical style of hockey, and tends to rack up a good amount of time in the penalty box. Switching a player like that from the offensive ice to in front of the crease might really benefit the Flames. Especially with how the Beavers were able to score a good amount of their goals over the weekend, by just muddying the area in front of Virostek and kicking the puck around until it found the back of the net.
The emergence of Ryan Finch and the rest of this rookie class is something to be excited about
I like this rookie class. A lot. Let’s start with the freshman that easily was the most impactful against the defending champs, forward Ryan Finch. Finch was everywhere, and every time I noticed that white sweater with the number 20, it was because of something good he did. Finch had a knack for finding himself in the right place at the right time, and it was to the benefit of his line.
Finch leaves the weekend second on the team in points with two goals and two assists through three games. His second goal might have been his true emergence to Flames fans; it was beautiful. There is one thing that I noticed that Finch could improve upon — he needs to take more shots. His wrister is gorgeous, and he could very easily become the second option in this offense behind Kalandyk, but he needs to start letting loose and ripping off some shots.
The other members of this freshman class didn’t stand out as much as Finch, but I left the weekend pleased with what I saw from each of them. Defenseman Owen Lugowski didn’t pop, but he wasn’t really taken advantage of the way some younger defenders are. Martin Mocs is another defender who played well, but he’s a different type of defender than Lugowski. Lugowski is more of a defensive-minded player whereas Mocs is more of a Kaebel/Bite type like I mentioned up top.
Rounding out the freshman class is forward Mason Smith, who hasn’t tallied any points yet, but that doesn’t worry me. For one, the flashes are there. He needs to let loose and start shooting same as Finch, and maybe start staying out of the penalty box. But there is a lot of hype surrounding Smith. So much that the term “best in program history” has been thrown around, and by people whose opinions I value and respect. He’s definitely someone to keep your eye on going forward.
Palsgrove is the asst. sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on X