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    March 16, 2023 Marlborough, Mass. RSS |

    With a nor’easter blanketing New England with fresh snowfall earlier this week, it looks and feels a bit like Christmas for coaches and players on Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass., a suburb of Boston where the Flames will be battling for their first Murdoch Cup, the ACHA DI men’s national championship trophy.

    “This is the most exciting time of the year,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said, noting that the Flames are the only team in the nation to have beaten every other team in the Top 5. “The guys have put themselves in a really good spot to be No. 5 seed heading into the tournament.”

    The No. 5 Flames (16-12-2) will look to rise and shine as they open tournament play by challenging No. 12 Pittsburgh (20-7-3), the ESCHL regular-season and tournament champion, on Saturday at 10:15 a.m., with the winner advancing to play the winner between No. 13 Grand Valley State and No. 4 UNLV on Sunday at 10:15 a.m.

    Head Coach Kirk Handy has the Flames fully focused on executing their game plan from the get-go against Pitt. (Photo by Joel Coleman)

    “These games are high-pressure, but it’s going to be super fun, every minute of it,” senior defenseman Colin Baird said. “As athletes, we love the pressure. Those are the moments you want to step up and play your best. I just think everybody wants to go out there and win for each other.”

    For the first time in the tournament’s 31-year history, all five divisions will be competing at the same location at the same time, with the 220,000-square-foot Sports Center’s eight rinks staging all 113 games involving 78 teams over a period of six days.

    “It will be a fun environment, having two other Liberty teams there and seeing them play and cheering them on,” Handy said. “We are all staying at the same hotel and we’re looking forward to it.”

    Liberty’s ACHA DI women’s and DII men’s teams are also in action over the weekend. All games will be streamed live by Hockey TV.

    The Flames are one of two independent programs in the national tournament field along with No. 1 Minot State. They have beaten each of the top four seeds in the tournament this season — winning two out of four games against UNLV and No. 3 Adrian before splitting series with No. 2 Ohio and the top-ranked Beavers over the past month at the LaHaye Ice Center.

    “Our group is resilient, and we are battle-tested,” Handy said. “They compete, they have shown that they want to get better and continue to push to be the best they can be. We’ve grown and matured a lot and I really like how, in the last six games, we have improved and gotten better each time out there. We are focused on ourselves, making sure that we’re physically, spiritually and mentally ready to go.”

    “We’re in a great spot and we’ve just got to take care of business,” added Baird, who will graduate in May with his MBA after completing his undergraduate business degree in three years. “There will be a lot of teams there, but we know that we can beat all of them, so we’re just going to go out and keep our head to the grindstone and get to work.”

    Scouting Preview for Game 30:  No. 5 Liberty (16-12-1) vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh (20-7-4) Saturday at 10:15 a.m. at the New England Sports Center. All games will be streamed live by Hockey TV. Listen to the latest Rock The Rink podcast previewing the ACHA National Championships on Spotify or Apple Pod.

    Liberty Scouting Report: The Flames are 5-8 in their past eight National Championship appearances dating back to 2012-13, recently posting lopsided first-round wins over Illinois (7-1 last season), Maryville (Mo., 9-0) and Ohio (10-2 in 2021), and Arizona (7-2 in 2019) before being eliminated. Their first semifinals appearance was in 2008, when they upset Penn State in the quarterfinals before falling to Illinois in the semifinals.

    This year’s team features balanced scoring from junior forwards Jacob Kalandyk (17 goals, 15 assists) and Jason Foltz (17G, including 3 game-winners, 13A) and senior forward Jackson Vercellono (10G, 18A). Defensemen Laz Kaebel (7G, 15A), a freshman, ranks fifth followed by Baird (2G, 19A), a graduate head captain, who is tied with junior forward Truett Olson (10G, 11A) and senior forward and alternate captain Matt Bartel (9G, 12A).

    Liberty’s power play has converted 28.1 percent of its chances and its penalty kill has been effective 75.4 percent of the time.

    Senior goalie Hunter Virostek will be an invaluable last line of defense for the Flames at nationals. (Photo by Kendall Tidwell)

    In goal, Virostek (12-7-1, 2.93 goals-against average, 92.1 save percentage, 2 shootout wins) has played the majority of minutes with primary backup from Cédric Le Sieur (4-1, 1.85 GAA, 93.7 SP, 1 shutout).

    Pittsburgh Scouting Report: After replacing Liberty in the ESCHL for the 2021-22 season, the Panthers won both the regular-season and ESCHL tournament championships this year, defeating Niagara, 8-2, in the final. Last season, Pittsburgh was eliminated by UNLV in the first round at nationals before the Skatin’ Rebels knocked Liberty out, 4-2 in the quarterfinals.

    Four forwards have scored 30 points or more this season for the Panthers: Will Studt (16G, 4GWG, 24A), Edward Pazo (17G, 3 GWG, 22A), Oldrich Virag (16G, 18A), and Ben Leslie (14G, 3 GWG, 14A). Pittsburgh has proven especially potent on the power play, finishing an even 30 percent of their opportunities. Pittsburgh’s PK has killed off 78.7 percent of opponents’ power plays.

    Between the pipes, the Panthers are anchored by Devin Barresi (12-4-2, 2.63 GAA, 92.0 SP, 1SOW) and Grant Lindsay (8-3-1, 3.22 GAA, 90.3 SP, 3 SO).

    Coaches: Kirk Handy is in his 23rd season at the helm of the Flames, having guided them to seven consecutive ACHA DI National Championship bids and posted a career record of 514-211-30. The Panthers are coached by Stu Rulnick, who is 243-120-16 in his 12 seasons at the helm.

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video edited by Kylee Lilge/Club Sports Video & Media Coordinator