Flames split weekend series against Niagara Purple Eagles

Fresh off a sweep against Ohio University on the road, Liberty returned to the LaHaye Ice Center to face off against the Niagara Purple Eagles Feb. 16-17. With just a handful of games left in the season, the men’s D1 hockey team looked to continue the climb to a potential top five spot in the nation and continue its winning streak into the final two-game series of the season.

Friday night saw the Flames don special neon jerseys to accompany the “Rock & Glow Night” theme. Fans received glowing light sticks and neon lights, illuminating the rink before the players hit the ice.

The last time Liberty played Niagara, the Flames sent the Purple Eagles home with a pair of losses. This time around, the Purple Eagles gave the Flames a tougher challenge. 

Niagara forward Devin Sanders scored in the first half of the first period when he and his teammate forward Jeremy Manning capitalized on a mistake by the Flames. Liberty’s defense was spread thin, leading to a two-on-one against Liberty’s graduate goaltender, Hunter Virostek, who was unable to make the miraculous save.

Photo by Anna Wheat | Hunter Virostek had 76 saves in the weekend series

Liberty took many shots on goal in the first period, but Niagara defended its zone aggressively, and it paid off, as it left the first with a 1-0 lead.

The Flames came out matching Niagara’s intensity in the second period. Both teams traded blows as they went after the puck, which saw many slams into the wall and plenty of penalties on both sides. Liberty kept shooting but could not get a shot in. The second period ended with the score staying the same.

The third period began, and Liberty attacked the Niagara goal. With both teams piling up near the net, it was hard to tell where the puck would go, but senior forward DJ Schwenke was in the right place at the right time. Among the chaos at the net, his teammates junior forward Jacob Kalandyk and sophomore forward Sam Feamster tipped the puck to Schwenke’s position at the post, and he was able to knock it in. 

The game was now tied, but it would not last, as Niagara notched two goals in the dying minutes of the game to win it 3-1.

“I think we need to clean up our D-zone,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “We have to get more traffic in front of the goalie. And we had shots on goal, but we need more quality shots on goal, and traffic in front of it will make the job tougher on the goalie.”

The graduating students were honored the next day as the Flames hockey team celebrated Senior Night. After the festivities, Liberty came out swinging with senior forward Nate Albers scoring in the first five minutes.

The crowd went wild as the Flames grabbed the lead for the first time of the weekend. Liberty kept the Purple Eagles under pressure the entire first period, but Niagara forward Samuel Davies scored in the dying minutes of the period to tie up the game.

Niagara picked up its aggression going into the second period, and both team’s players were getting heated. Graduate forward Brett Gammer scored early with the assistance of senior forward Truett Olson and graduate forward captain Matt Bartel. 

Photo by Anna Wheat | Flames captain and senior Matt Bartel tallied his 10th assist of the season

Niagara finally got the puck down to Liberty’s zone after a long fight with the Flames’ offense, and the team attempted to bring life to a dormant offense.

The Flames’ defense at the goal saw Niagara miss three shots, allowing them to get the puck out of the thicket and give it to junior defenseman Nate Cox, who took it and scored in the final minutes of the period. He was assisted by Schwenke and junior defenseman Kevin Bite, who had the most assists of the night with two.

“It’s a team game out there, and we’ve all got to share the puck,” Bite said, referencing his assists.

In the final period, Liberty scored its last goal of the weekend, and it came at the hands of Kalandyk.

Niagara needed a miracle to happen, and it nearly came when Liberty freshmen forward Mason Smith and junior defenseman Colten Kovich were both sent to the penalty box for slashing and roughing, which allowed Niagara to score two goals and bring the score to 4-3.

After a time-out called by Handy, the Liberty Flames played harder than they had all night and kept Niagara from scoring again. The Flames claimed victory to salvage the series split, 4-3.

“We had good energy tonight,” Handy said. “I liked our energy tonight, and I liked our line combos. I thought our guys looked good tonight.”

Liberty plays its final regular season game Feb. 24 at 5:30 p.m., when the team will face off against the Ohio Bobcats for the sixth time this season at the LaHaye Ice Center.

Warden is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion

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