Top-five dog fight: No. 2 Adrian Bulldogs come to town, split series with No. 5 Flames
The LaHaye Ice Center was packed out Feb. 2-3 for a showdown of two of the ACHA’s top five teams, the No. 2 Adrian Bulldogs and the No. 5 Liberty Flames.
Friday was Liberty’s annual “Star-Wars”-themed night that saw fans dressed up as their favorite characters, R2-D2 rolling around and some shiny new Mandalorian-themed jerseys for the players. The crowd was roaring like wookiees as the Flames looked to continue their 11-game win streak against the red-hot Bulldogs.
Adrian set the tone early with some incredibly physical play, and the Flames had to do their best to match that intensity. Both teams went back and forth in the first period with the Flames having 11 shots on goal to the Bulldogs’ nine. After a grind-it-out first period, the game was tied at zero.
The Flames erupted in the second period, with junior forward Jacob Kalandyk getting the Flames on the board first with an impressive goal from the attacking zone line in just the first minute of play in the second to give the Flames a 1-0 lead. Graduate forward Jackson Vercellono got in on the action, scoring off a rebound in the 18th minute to extend the lead to 2-0. The Flames weren’t done yet, as graduate forward Captain Matt Bartel added to the lead, scoring in the 13th minute to push the Flames to a comfortable 3-0 lead.
“I thought we came out firing; I thought we adjusted to their physicality well and scored some nice goals,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said after his team’s explosive second period.
As the period went on, the Flames had two late penalties that gave the Bulldogs a chance to cut into the lead during the power play, with Justin Jamer scoring right before the end of the period to make the score 3-1 going into the third.
The Bulldogs made it interesting in the third, scoring a quick goal courtesy of Adrian’s leading scorer Matt DiGiulio just 30 seconds after the opening faceoff. Kalandyk would respond soon after, with an electric goal to return the Flames’ two-goal cushion, 4-2.
While a late goal from forward Sam Spaedt on the power play in the game’s final minutes gave the Bulldogs hope of a comeback, the Flames doubled down in the defensive zone to keep Adrian off the scoreboard and take down the nation’s No. 2 team.
“(The win is) huge, its momentum and confidence; it allows us to see what it takes to win games like this,” Handy said.
The Flames failed to replicate that winning formula on Saturday. The Bulldogs came out swinging, shooting from left and right and ending the first period with 21 shots on goal. Flames graduate goalie Hunter Virostek fended off the Bulldogs as best he could, allowing just one goal in the first period on a rare miscue from the goaltender to make the score 1-0 heading into the second.
“I felt like we came out flat. It was a 16-hour turnaround, and we have to figure out a way to get through that in March,” Handy said.
After a major blow penalty assessed to sophomore defenseman Lazarus Kaebel at the end of the first, the Bulldogs started the second on the power play. The Bulldogs were able to capitalize on the man advantage and extend the lead to 2-0. Hunter Allen scored in the 10th minute to make it 3-0.
The Flames tried to claw back as senior forward Truett Olsen knocked the puck into the net out of midair while on the power play to make it 3-1. Tensions were high as the Flames became frustrated due to a lack of offense, which led to the game getting chippy throughout the period.
The Bulldogs kept their foot on the gas, scoring another goal to start the third and making it a 4-1 game. Senior forward Kris Bladen scored his first goal of the season toward the end of the game to make the final score 4-2 Bulldogs.
The Flames have another top ACHA opponent on the schedule next weekend, heading to Athens to play the OhioBobcats Feb. 9-10 at Bird Arena.
Stacy is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on X