DI Flames capitalize on chances to pull away from Pitt in ACHA nationals opener
Challenging ESCHL regular-season and tournament champion Pittsburgh for the first time in more than a decade, Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team pounced on the Panthers by a 7-2 final, Saturday morning in its ACHA DI National Championship opener at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass.
Despite being outshot 36-33 for the game, the No. 5-seeded Flames (17-12-2) got goals from seven different players to put away No. 12 Pitt (20-8-3), winning 38 of 62 faceoffs (61 percent) for the contest.
“We had five goals in 10 shots to start the game and although the shots look like they weren’t in our favor, we were a little more picky about where we were shooting and when we did, it was going in the net,” Flames junior forward DJ Schwenke said.
Schwenke sparked the attack with the game’s first goal exactly three minutes after the opening faceoff, finishing a feed from junior forward Kam Ottenbreit, who intercepted the puck moments after coming off the bench for a line change.
“Great forecheck from Kam and he made a great pass and I just swung at it and the goalie was out of position and it went into the net,” Schwenke said.
“At the games here at the national tournament, you want to have a quick start and scoring the first goal three minutes in was huge for us,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy added. “I still feel like there’s another level of sharpness we have, so we will continue to get better. We haven’t played in a couple of weeks, so It was good to get our feet under us and continue the track forward.”
Moments after senior goalie Hunter Virostek made a spectacular butterfly-style save of a one-on-one opportunity by the Panthers, Pitt evened the score with a putback by Oldrich Virag in the right crease off an initial shot by fellow forward Josh Hrip.
But after a crosschecking penalty against freshman defenseman Reid Bogenholm, the Flames reclaimed the lead shorthanded at the 9:48 mark when senior forward and alternate captain Matt Bartel launched a quick wrist shot from the left side of the blue line that ripped into the upper netting past Panthers goalie Grant Lindsay.
“That shot was amazing,” Schwenke said. “Pitt was hanging around and Bartel shoots that one and we were like, ‘We got this.’ (Junior forward Jacob Kalandyk) said before the game we just got to get two quick ones and then we’re going to control the game, and he was right. We got two quick ones and dictated the rest of the game.”
With 5:45 left in the period, Liberty stretched its edge to 3-1 on a fast-break counterattack set up by sophomore forward Joe Clark, with sophomore forward Aleksandr Charin assisting junior linemate Nate Albers with a cross-crease pass for an open-net finish.
“Anytime you can have Albers chip in with a goal, he’s a warrior for us and that was a big, big goal for us there,” Handy said.
The Flames capitalized on a power play at the 4:28 mark when freshman defenseman Laz Kaebel received a pass across the high slot from Kalandyk and blasted a howitzer of a slapshot top shelf from the top of the left circle past replacement goalie Devin Beresi.
Liberty went on the penalty kill for a high stick call against junior forward Jason Foltz in front of the Panthers’ net before Ottenbreit was issued a five-minute major and ejected from the contest for boarding a Pitt player in the corner.
The Flames extinguished the 5-on-3 and nearly half of the 5-on-4 over the final 2:18 before the first intermission. Despite being outshot by the Panthers 15-7 in the period, Liberty led, 4-1.
“Our PK was dynamite tonight,” Handy said. “We made some adjustments and we like what we did and it sure paid off. Special teams are really important at this time of the year. You get Matt Bartel’s shorthanded goal, Laz Kaebel’s power-play goal, we killed off all of the power-play opportunities that they had. That’s credit to (Assistant coaches Jonathan) Chung and (Dan) Berthiaume.”
Seconds after killing off the rest of Pitt’s power play at the start of the second period, the Flames struck again at even strength. Kalandyk, Liberty’s leading scorer on the season, took passes from linemates Jackson Vercellono and Truett Olson and skated into the right circle before lifting a wrist shot into the upper netting past Beresi to stretch the lead to 5-1.
“Our goal-scorers were on tonight,” Handy said.
Less than three minutes later, Liberty took advantage of a Panthers turnover in their own end when Charin pocketed a wrist shot through the slot into the top corner of the cage off a perfectly placed assist from Clark, extending the gap to 6-1 with 14:15 to go in the second.
Virostek made several of his 30 saves to shut the Panthers down in the second period and Hrip struck the right post after sneaking a shot past him on a breakaway opportunity in the final minute.
“There’s going to be ebbs and flows to the game,” Handy said. “There was an ebb in the second period where they got the advantage on us, but overall, the guys weathered the storm well and Hunter (Virostek) played fantastic for us again.”
Senior forward Brett Gammer all but put the game out of reach with a top-shelf wrist shot from deep in the left crease off a rebound of a shot from the right point by sophomore defenseman Nate Cox, set up by Schwenke. That padded the Flames’ lead to 7-1 with 17:30 remaining in the third period.
The Panthers got that one back when Connor Stuewe stuck a putback past senior goalie Cédric Le Sieur exactly one minute after he replaced Virostek. Le Sieur saved his final four shots on goal to shut Pitt down the rest of the way.
“Hunter’s played really well for us and we wanted to get Cédric in there and he played well for us as well,” Handy said.
Pitt joined the ESCHL in 2021, the year Liberty left the conference to go independent. That move allowed the Flames to play a much more challenging schedule this season, with the majority of their games against teams ranked in the top 10.
Handy credited Associate Head Coach Jeff Boettger for scouting the Panthers in the ESCHL tournament and devising a successful game plan.
“Coach Boettger had some really good insight on Pitt for us,” Handy said. “It’s a team effort, players coaches and our staff, too. (Club Sports Director of Sports Performance) Coach (Chris) Kerr and (team athletic trainer) Josh Smith and all of the other equipment guys that help us out, it’s important that all of these pieces are ready to go and are dialed in at this time of the year (and we’ve prepared our guys well.”
He believes the Flames will be fired up and ready to battle UNLV in Sunday’s 10:15 a.m. quarterfinal rematch, especially after the Skatin’ Rebels eliminated Liberty in that round in last season’s national championships.
“It will be a great game,” Handy said. “We’re looking forward to it and excited to turn the page on (the rivalry) again tomorrow. It’s been a battle, even this year. It’s anybody’s game. I think we’ll refine tonight and get better for tomorrow. There’s still another level of refinement that we want to have.”
The two teams staged series sweeps on one another’s home ice this season and will be squaring off in a neutral site for the third time, after UNLV won last year’s Chicago Classic championship game as well as ACHA quarterfinal showdown in St. Louis. The Skatin’ Rebels hold a 5-3 advantage in the all-time series.
“We are so ready for tomorrow,” Schwenke said. “The team is excited and no other team is as prepared as we are. We’ve really got to trust in that and trust in each other. Things aren’t always going to go our way, but we already know that going in, so we just need to stick to the plan.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media