Flames allow Minot to erase early deficit in 3-1 semifinal loss
Competing in its first ACHA Division I National Championships "Frozen Four" in 13 seasons, Liberty University's fourth-seeded DI men's hockey team was ousted by the reigning 2019 national champions, sixth-seeded Minot State, 3-1, Monday night at the Maryville University Hockey Center outside of St. Louis.
It was the first meeting in more than five years between the two teams, who each swept series in their own respective rinks in 2015 before the Beavers ended the Flames' 2015-16 season with a narrow sweep at the LaHaye Ice Center, the last time they were both independent programs.
The Flames (12-5, 10-4 ACHA) got off to a fast start, with senior forward Quinn Ryan winning the opening faceoff and sophomore defenseman Colin Baird lifting a puck out of his own corner to the tape of junior forward Josh Fricks' stick on the right wing for a sharp-angled shot saved by Minot State goalie Chad Duran.
Freshman forward DJ Schwenke (center) skids to a stop between two Minot players along the boards.
The Beavers looked to capitalize quicker when forward Davis Sheldon deflected defenseman Eric Soar's shot from the right circle past Liberty junior goalie Hunter Virostek at the 16:57 mark. However, the puck was ruled to have gone under the net to the right of the post, negating the apparent goal.
The Flames killed off a Minot State power play with Virostek making a great blocker save near the right post early on before gloving a shot on a quick counterattack moments afterwards.
The Beavers, who had five players average more than a point per game through their first 30 contests, continued to apply pressure around Liberty's cage, but Virostek was up to every test, denying a point-blank shot by forward Adam Wowryk near the right post with 2:25 left in the first.
The Flames took advantage of a major miscue by Duran at the 16:56 mark of the second period to seize a 1-0 lead. He attempted a no-look pass from behind his cage right, only went the wrong way right to Liberty sophomore forward Zak Albers, who backhanded a shot from deep in the left circle into an empty net as Duran retreated back to his spot.
Flames sophomore forward Zak Albers earned a penalty for a second-period check that leveled a Beavers player.
"We really stressed the forecheck and the goalie made the error and I was fortunate enough to be there to put it in," Albers said.
But the Beavers bounced back to net the tying goal with 11:44 left in the second when defenseman Dylan Cassie snuck a sharp-angled shot from the right circle past Virostek. They added the game-winner in the closing minute of the period after a rebound of a shot blocked by Virostek was left untouched in the right crease. Flames defenseman Dmytro Kobylyanskyi was tripped in the right crease and Minot forward Drew Carter threaded the loose puck inside the left post.
"A couple bounces there for them and they're up 2-1 and then we're chasing the game again," Flames Head Coach Kirk Handy said.
Graduate defenseman Chaydan Lauber and Baird launched shots from the top of the right and left circles that Duran blocked high before senior defenseman Vitaliy Novytskyy nearly put away a cross-crease pass from Ryan, only to have his one-timed shot glove-saved by Duran at the right post.
Then, after the Flames pulled Virostek for the final minute and a half of regulation, Carter netted an empty-net insurance goal with 39.3 seconds to go for the final score. For the game, the Beavers outshot Liberty, 30-23, and Virostek made 27 saves.
"Minot's obviously the defending champions and they're a really good team, with a lot of the same guys back," Albers said. "They're very, very physical and we were prepared for that and just gave it our all. We just didn't have the bounces tonight, but we'll be back, for sure. It was a good game and I look forward to playing them again next season."
Junior forward Matt Bartel (91) and a few Flames seniors gather around Quinn Ryan (19) after the loss.
Though seeded two spots lower, the Beavers (28-3) held an experience advantage on the Flames, who had only played half as many games this season.
"It was definitely hard only playing 13 games this season," Albers said. "Hopefully next year, we can get back into the rhythm of things and piece together a good season and find our way back to the national championships. It was hard to say goodbye (to the Flames' nine seniors) and for those guys who started something, as a younger guy, it's our job to continue that spiritually and on the ice as well. They definitely left a great legacy and big shoes to fill."
Handy said the growth the Flames seniors have experienced on their journey over the past four or five years was more rewarding than the final destination.
"Obviously, there's disappointment in that we don't advance," Handy said. "It's a one-goal game that could have gone any direction. I'm proud of this group of guys. We didn't get the result we wanted tonight, but we've got a lot of great character and a lot of great guys coming back and we'll continue to build.
"There's a special group of guys in there, a special group of seniors who have worked hard for us," he added. "I value the relationships we have with our guys, I value the culture we have in there, I value who our guys are, and Whose they are, and who they are as men, as students at Liberty University. Being part of the family of Liberty Hockey, these guys leaving here, they've grown in their faith, they've grown academically, they've grown as men and they're going to go out and leave here as world-changers."