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    March 15, 2023 Marlborough, Mass. RSS |

    Heading into Friday’s pool-play opener against the University of Iowa, Liberty University’s ACHA Division II men’s hockey team will be chomping at the bit to begin its quest for the program’s first national championship at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass.

    After leaving the Mid-Atlantic College Hockey (MACH) conference last year and clinching the No. 1 ranking in the Southeast Region and an autobid to the 16-team national tournament field, the Flames (26-4-1) have not played since Feb. 12, when they recorded a 9-3 win at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. But Head Coach Ben Hughes believes that has only left them hungrier to hit the ice.

    “The guys are really excited,” Hughes said. “When you go a whole month without being able to play against another team, you get antsy to play some real hockey. We have been pretty strategic in the way we laid out practices this past month, and we have set them up for success the best that we could.”

    “Overall, the guys have done a really good job of being prepared — fine-tuning different systems of line work, prioritize getting healthy and rested, and making sure we’re in even better shape than after the regular season ended.”

    Liberty will play Iowa (18-3-1), the No. 4 team out of the Central, on Friday at 8:15 p.m.; Utah State (24-11-8), the No. 3-ranked team out of the West Region, on Saturday at 5:15 p.m.; and Northeastern (15-6-4), the No. 2-ranked team out of the Northeast Region, on Sunday at 8:15 p.m. Only the top team out of each pool will advance to Monday’s semifinals with the championship game set for Tuesday at 4 p.m.

    Head Coach Ben Hughes has guided the Flames to the national tournament for the sixth time in his six seasons at the helm. (Photo by KJ Jugar)

    “The big narrative going into the national tournament will be what the guys have done all year together collectively, having already played and beaten a lot of the top teams in the country,” Hughes said, even though the Flames’ first game against two-time-defending ACHA DII national champion University of Mary (N.D., the No. 1 seed out of the West Region) on Oct. 14 at the LaHaye Ice Center was ruled a 2-2 tie rather than a shootout win. “We’ve played UMass (Amherst, the No. 1 seed out of the Northeast) and beat them; we’ve played Lindenwood (the No. 1 seed out of the Central) and beat them; we’ve played Florida Gulf Coast (the No. 2 team out of the Southeast) and beat them. We’ve done it before, so there is no reason we can’t do it again. Our biggest focus is taking one game at a time.”

    That starts with Friday night’s first-ever meeting with Iowa, a team that was only ranked ninth in the Central Region but advanced to nationals with an upset in that tournament.

    “Their game is a little bit heavier, with a little more obstruction and physicality,” Hughes said. “That’s the blend of hockey we’re OK with. We pride ourselves on being a team that can play all different types of hockey — fast, physical, or more skilled and technical.”

    Besides sophomore goalie and Southeast Region Player of the Year Lane Skon, and senior goalie Stephen Sanders, Liberty leans on its captains — graduate defenseman Alex Norwinski and forward Josh Malin and sophomore forwards Josh Harrell and Rece Poulin — for leadership.

    Norwinski and Harrell are tied for second on the team in scoring with 13 goals and 17 assists apiece, trailing only junior forward Roman Lamoureux (18G, 15A).

    “Alex, he is so steady back there for us, so poised, brings a lot of maturity to our back end for sure,” Hughes said.

    Freshman forward Thomas Kayner (8G, 19A), Poulin (4G, 16A), and freshman forward Josh Martin (11G, 8A) have provided secondary scoring.

    “One of (Martin’s) biggest assets is his speed and his tenacity,” Hughes said. “We knew he’d be an impact player. He has gone up and down the depth chart but has found a really good role and is keeping things simple, finding ways to score.”

    He has appreciated his coaching staff for helping to keep the team focused and playing together.

    “Michael Niederer is in his first year coaching with us, and he’s done a fantastic job of leading our D corps,” Hughes said. “Christian Garland and I have been together for five years and this year has been the best year overall for our coaching staff. The camaraderie of the coaching staff is amazing, and the leadership group of the players is what sets us apart this year.”

    All 113 games of the ACHA National Championships will be streamed live by HockeyTV. Listen to episode No. 58 of the “Rock the Rink” podcast featuring DII men’s hockey strength and conditioning coach Cole Seaborn.

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer