DI Flames battle back against Rebels in ACHA quarters before suffering 4-2 season-ending setback
A spirited comeback bid by Liberty University’s No. 5-ranked ACHA Division I men’s hockey team had No. 4 UNLV on the ropes before the Rebels responded down the stretch to avert an upset in Sunday’s quarterfinal matchup at the Centene Community Hockey Center near St. Louis.
UNLV (28-4-1) advanced to Monday’s “Frozen Four” with a 4-2 victory, its third in four battles against the Flames (21-9-1) this season.
“UNLV’s a quality opponent and we had good games against them all year,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “They were tight, physical games, and this one wasn’t any different. Unfortunately, they were able to get the better of us today.”
The Rebels outshot Liberty, 14-6, in the first period, when it recorded shorthanded, power-play, and even-strength goals to seize a 3-0 lead.
The Flames came out on attack, generating an early power-play scoring chance by senior forward Josh Fricks in the left crease before the Rebels responded with a steal and shorthanded counterattack as forward Jayson Dimizio capitalized on the breakaway for a 1-0 lead at the 17:55 mark.
“We got a power play right at the beginning of the game and, in hindsight, that wasn’t the best thing,” Handy said. “We would have wanted to play more 5-on-5 before that. They were obviously able to score on special teams and we weren’t, and that was one of the big differences today.”
UNLV went on a 5-on-3 power play after Flames alternate captains Matt Bartel and Chaydan Lauber were called for roughing and boarding, respectively, within a span of 20 seconds. Las Vegas forward Paxton Malone cashed in with a wrist shot from high in the right circle that snuck past Flames goalie Hunter Virostek into the top left corner of the net for a 2-0 advantage with 12:39 left in the first period.
“We didn’t come out and play the way we wanted to play,” Handy said. “They were taking the physicality to us and we got caught on our heels there a little bit.”
Virostek made a series of saves before UNLV won a faceoff in the offensive zone and Nicholas Flanders sent an entry pass into Bradley Golant in front for an initial shot repelled by Virostek, before Michael Boutoussov found a seam with a putback in the slot for a 3-0 advantage with 3:31 left in the first.
The Flames struck back with their first goal with Fricks slamming home a top-shelf one-timer from a sharp angle deep in the left circle past UNLV goalie Zach Wickson off an assist across the slot from freshman defenseman Matt Berezowski to trim the deficit to 3-1 with 11:53 left in the second period.
Freshman defenseman Nate Cox and Lauber had shots from the top of the right and left circles blocked by Wickson. With the Flames on the power play late in the period, Virostek made a glove save of a shorthanded breakaway shot by the Rebels, who were called for boarding with 4:14 left. But UNLV’s aggressive penalty kill unit again created a better scoring opportunity than the Flames did on the power play and the Rebels were able to maintain a 3-1 lead going into the third period.
Still trailing by two goals, Liberty called time out with just over 4:00 remaining in regulation and Wickman glove-saved a shot from the high slot by Bartel before Lauber pulled the Flames back within 3-2 with a laser of a shot off a faceoff win from the top of the right circle into the top right corner with 3:16 to go.
“I was proud of the way our guys battled back, to get to within 3-2 with three minutes to go,” Handy said. “Part of that second and third period we were playing the way we wanted to play. We had our chances.”
Liberty continued to pressure the UNLV cage over the next 90 seconds with shots by Lauber and Fricks blocked by Wickson (27 saves) before the Rebels struck back and iced the 4-2 victory with a wide-open finish by Flanders in the right crease off a cross-slot assist from Golant with 1:32 to play.
For the game, UNLV only outshot Liberty by a 30-29 margin and Virostek made 26 saves to keep the Flames in the contest.
“I am super proud of this group,” Handy said. “Losing guys like Chaydan Lauber and Josh Fricks and Tyler Myers and Devin Melice, obviously, they were big parts of our team. We will have to wait to see what the new players look like next year, but I am confident in the guys we have coming back, in the heart and the character we have in our locker room.”
He said the Flames fared better than many would have expected considering how much they graduated from last season’s “Frozen Four” team and how many newcomers they blended into this year’s lineup.
“As I look back on the year and think about coming into it with 11 new players and adding another (junior defenseman Cam Kuhn) in January, 12 out of our 26 players were brand new,” Handy said. “And when I think about all of the possibilities for next season with a strong returning core of guys coming back, guys who work hard, love the culture and environment at Liberty, ultimately, our goal every season is to Train Champions for Christ and put ourselves in a position to contend for the national championship at the end of the year.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer