Liberty men’s D1 hockey team splits weekend series agains ACHA rival Maryville Saints
After splitting their last two-game series against Adrian College, the Liberty men’s D1 hockey team returned home and challenged the Maryville University Saints Oct. 20-21 in the LaHaye Ice Center.
Despite recording a 3-4-1 record so far this season, the Flames were ranked No. 4 in the ACHA national poll going into their games against Maryville. The Saints entered 5-3, playing against notable teams such as Ohio University and the University of Central Oklahoma.
Game one on Friday night was a thriller, to say the least. The 3-2 victory for the Flames did not come easy, as they took the Saints to a shootout to decide the winner.
Coming off a tough 4-3 loss to Adrian College, Liberty was hungry to rebound. The team came out firing on all cylinders on home ice, putting up 15 shots in the first period. However, 6-foot-6 Maryville goaltender Edward Coffey was up to the challenge, shutting down multiple quality scoring chances.
Despite being on their heels for a majority of the period, Maryville’s sophomore transfer, Hunter Floris, managed to score a buzzer-beater at the end of the first on a rebound in front of the net. Floris was a key pickup for the Saints, as he tallied 47 points in 32 games with Iowa State last season.
The second period was no different. The Flames outshot Maryville 10-8 and dominated play. Both goaltenders, however, held up, and the Saints carried a 1-0 lead going into the final period of play.
With an energized home crowd and 20 hungry Flames skaters, Liberty continued to generate quality chances in the third period, challenging Coffey and hunting for the back of the net. With just under 10 minutes remaining, the Flames found their answer. Senior forward Jackson Vercellono scored his long-awaited first goal of the season on a rebound off junior forward Jacob Kalandyk’s shot, returning the game to an even fight.
With the lamp lit at the LaHaye Ice Center, the Flames now carried all the momentum. Just over three minutes later, Liberty had a powerplay opportunity and did not miss. Senior forward Truett Olson — with the help of graduate forward Captain Matt Bartel and Vercellono — found the twine with six minutes remaining in regulation.
The game only got more intense from there. The Saints did not back down after losing their lead and drew a penalty for a huge powerplay with under five minutes remaining. Saints senior forward TJ Prexler was able to get the job done and tie the contest with 3:25 remaining in the third. Both teams were able to lock each other down and take the game to overtime.
The three-on-three, five-minute overtime was a defensive showdown. The Saints put up two shots and the Flames with one lone shot as neither team was willing to risk losing the game. As the overtime period drew to a close, Liberty was destined for its second shootout of the season. Just weeks before, the Flames fell short in a shootout against the No. 1 Minot State Beavers. As the pressure in the rink heightened, Liberty sought to produce a different result this time around.
The Flames sent out offensive weapons freshman forward Ryan Finch, Kalandyk and senior forward Jason Foltz. Finch went first for the Flames, ringing the post, unable to find the back of the net.
Flames freshman goaltender Nick Bernstein, filling in between the pipes for an injured Hunter Virostek, stood tall, not allowing the Saints shooters to score. Kalandyk was then able to beat Coffey glove-side for the game-winner to take first contest against Maryville.
Game one was encouraging for the Flames as proving their ability to overcome adversity and pull off the comeback win against Maryville might mark a turning point in their season. Defeating a defensively sound Saints team in a tough-fought game might be the kick the Flames need to turn their losing record around.
“The guys never quit,” Liberty Assistant Coach Jeff Boettger said. “That mentality is something we’ve seen over and over again through(out) the course of the first semester of the season.”
The second game on Saturday night posed the same challenge for the Flames — a defensive game that would challenge their perseverance.
Looking to sweep the Saints, the Flames came out flying, nearly doubling Maryville’s shots on goal in the first period. However, through solid goaltending from freshman Kyle McNair, the Saints managed to lock down the Flames’ high-powered offense after one period of play.
Maryville came out of the gates of the second period and took the fight back to Liberty, with Floris netting his second of the weekend to give the Saints the lead early in the period. Maryville continued to control the game until about halfway through the period, when Liberty was finally able to break the seal and score. Sophomore forward Sam Feamster, with the help of an awkward bounce, was able to tie the game with seven minutes left in the middle period. The game remained locked at one apiece for the rest of the second, with both teams battling for the upper hand.
The third and final period of the weekend began with a Maryville goal by defenseman Timon Prexler two minutes into the period. A beautiful shot that found the top of the net put Prexler’s team up by one with 18 minutes left in regulation.
However, the Flames were not fazed and went back to work, pouring more shots on net and
dominating play for the next few minutes until they were finally rewarded for their hard work. Freshman forward Mason Smith was able to net his first collegiate goal to tie the game at 7:15 in the third.
The teams were bound at twos, neither giving up ground to another and the goalies keeping the game tied. With 32 seconds left to play, Flame Nate Cox and Saint Sam Edwards were given coincidental minor penalties for a mix-up in front of the Maryville bench, leading to four-on-four play for the rest of the period. The game was now on the verge of going to overtime once again, until Maryville forward Brett Ursulak took matters into his own hands and scored a hard-nosed goal with six seconds left. This left the Flames virtually no time to tie the game, and they dropped game two to Maryville on a heartbreaking, last-minute score.
Despite this tough loss to a top-tier opponent such as Maryville, Liberty left the ice with many positives. Making multiple comebacks and showing resilience despite having players out due to injury, the Flames laid it all out against the Saints.
“We had to battle a lot of adversity with players being injured and banged up, and that’s part of it this time of the year,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “We need other guys to step up and play effectively, we have a special group and believe we are going to be there at the end of the year.”
The Flames have battled a plethora of top teams in the ACHA such as Minot State, Adrian College and Maryville — all teams that will be at the ACHA National Tournament in March.
“Any time we play quality teams night in and night out, it makes our team ready for a tournament like Nationals,” Boettger noted. “You have to be mentally and emotionally prepared for what happens, everything goes to building good habits, which is key at that time of the year.”
Liberty will be back in action next weekend at the University of Delaware. The Flames decisively swept the Blue Hens in their last meeting and look to do it again in a two-game series starting Friday, Oct. 27.
Bessire is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on X