Crowd fans Flames to 9-0 win over Crimson Hawks in season opener
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty, and there was plenty of it in the LaHaye Ice Center on Friday night as the Flames’ ACHA Division I men’s hockey team made its 2021-22 season debut against Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Inspired by a lively student body crowd, Liberty scored three goals in the first period, added two in the second stanza, and finished with a four-goal flurry late in the third frame of a 9-0 triumph.
“It’s great to have people back in the building,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said, noting COVID-19 restrictions reduced the fan capacity to 50 percent. “That’s a huge part of it for us, the crowd and the students and the atmosphere. For our young guys to have that type of opening-night atmosphere is a lot of fun and we’re excited for when we get to be at 100 percent (capacity).”
“It was pretty exciting,” added freshman forward Truett Olson, who netted a hat trick in his first game with the Flames. “It was awesome to see all the people coming out. I could feel their energy when I was out there on the ice so it was a great experience.”
Graduate defenseman Chaydan Lauber started the scoring by finishing feeds from freshmen forwards Kam Ottenbreit and Jackson Vercellono, launching a shot from the high slot past IUP goalie Danny Soltesz.
Midway through the first period, Olson capitalized on his first shift in the game, backhanding a putback off an assist from freshman defenseman Matt Berezowski. His shot glanced off the crossbar and landed in front of the cage for Olson, who extended the lead to 2-0.
Then, with 1:09 remaining in the first period, sophomore forward Kris Bladen sliced through the right crease and backhanded a pass to senior forward Zak Albers. He couldn’t get a stick on it, but junior forward Brett Gammer cleaned up the loose puck, shuffling it past Soltesz into the left side of the cage.
The Flames were shut out on their second power play early in the second period, with senior forwards Josh Fricks and Matt Bartel putting quality shots on net before Albers had a point-blank shot from deep in the right crease blocked.
At the 15:27 mark, Gammer took a pass from sophomore forward DJ Schwenke in the slot and lifted a backhand shot from the edge of the left circle over the glove of an unsuspecting Soltesz.
Flames senior goalie Hunter Virostek made his fair share of spectacular stops, including a kick save on a one-on-one breakaway late in the second period.
“Hunter made the saves when he had to and he was solid for us,” Handy said noting that though Liberty outshot IUP 60-20, “Hunter steadied the ship for us for sure tonight.”
Moments later, after an odd-man rush on net and a near miss by Vercellono, Fricks gathered the loose puck in the left corner and set up Lauber for his second score on a blast from the top of the left circle for a 4-0 advantage just 11 seconds before the second intermission.
“Chaydan had a couple of really nice goals and we’re going to rely on Chaydan’s leadership on such a young team,” Handy said. “Brett Gammer chipped in with a couple and then we had Ottenbreit get his first and (sophomore forward Jason) Foltz had a beauty as well.”
Ottenbreit, a transfer from NCAA Division III Aurora (Ill.), netted his first goal for the Flames, tucking away a putback of senior defenseman Colin Baird’s shot from the high slot with 6:14 remaining in regulation. Just 12 seconds after the ensuing faceoff, Lauber had the secondary assist on Olson’s second goal, set up by Bladen’s pass from along the right boards for a commanding 7-0 lead.
Less than two minutes later, Foltz scored on a delayed penalty, using a nifty toe drag move at the top of the right circle to maneuver the puck past a defenseman before rifling a shot that deflected just inside the right post to stretch the gap to 8-0.
Finally, with the Flames on the ensuing power play, Berezowski and Schwenke assisted Olson, who completed his hat trick by slipping the puck through Solesz as he crashed into the crease and flopped over him, landing beside the right post.
“That was from Matt again,” Olson said. “I tried to beat the guy wide and then Matt slid it back and I saw the goalie was cheating, so I cut to the middle and sent it five-hole.”
Olson, one of four Flames teammates with FCA Hockey connections to NorthStar (Minn.) Christian Academy — along with freshman forwards Nate Albers and Vercellono and freshman defenseman Nate Cox — has recovered from an injury early in the team’s preseason camp and made a quick first impression.
“He’s getting better all the time and he was opportunistic tonight,” Handy said. “He was bouncing around different lines and it seemed like everywhere we put him in there, he worked hard and made things happen.”
“I took advantage of the shifts that I had,” Olson added. “I love how we just kept rolling four lines and everyone played really well tonight. It was a good first game. We have a special group of guys this year. It’s going to be fun.”
With seven of his 15 forwards new, Handy has some experimenting to do before finalizing his line combinations.
“We’re trying to figure out who we’ve got and who can play with who,” he said. “I liked what we had tonight.”
Liberty will take on North Carolina State’s ACHA Division II team Saturday at 10 p.m., after the 6 p.m. Flames Football game against ODU at Williams Stadium and Liberty’s Division II season opener against IUP set for 4:30 p.m. at the LIC.
“We’re going to try to clean some stuff up (Saturday) night,” Olson said. “Hopefully, we can come out with some fire and put it to them.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media