Flames allow top-ranked Beavers to rally from 3-1 deficit, salvage series split, 5-3
Splitting series against the Nos. 1, 3, and 4-ranked teams in the country over the past three weeks should give Liberty University’s No. 6-ranked ACHA Division I men’s hockey team all the confidence it needs to thrive at the March 16-21 National Championships near Boston.
After trading series sweeps against No. 2 UNLV on each other’s home ice, the Flames (16-12-1) won one and lost one against No. 4 Adrian and No. 3 Ohio the past two weeks before splitting a pair with top-ranked Minot State, which staged a 5-3 come-from-behind win on Saturday night at the LaHaye Ice Center. The setback put a damper on the Flames’ Senior Night when they recognized graduating goalies Hunter Virostek and Cédric Le Sieur, defensemen Colin Baird, Tom Nagle, and Luke Heimann, and forwards Brett Gammer, Matt Bartel, and Josh Fricks, who made the trip from Atlanta where he is rehabilitating from his spinal cord injury at the Shepherd Center. But it did nothing to quench the team’s resilient spirit.
“They were great games,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said of the series against the Beavers (29-3), the 2019 ACHA DI national champions who had won the previous 11 matchups with the Flames before Friday. “People are going to say our record wasn’t that great, but listen, we played the best teams in the country and we beat the best teams in the country and going into the national tournament knowing that you beat the top four teams is really a huge thing. We’re the only team in the country who can say that. Would I have loved to have won tonight? For sure. But I think the momentum and the confidence we’re going to build off this weekend is going to be huge. I’m proud of our guys. They’ve been working really hard the last couple of weeks and we’ve really seen some great results because of it.”
The Flames got on the scoreboard first when sophomore defenseman Nate Cox received a pass back from senior forward Brett Gammer, who had taken freshman forward Sam Feamster’s faceoff win, and launched a missile from the point that snuck past Beavers goalie Jake Anthony and rung off the top of the left post and into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead with 8:23 left in the first period.
“What a shot, a great point shot through traffic,” said Flames junior forward DJ Schwenke, who provided a screen of Anthony in front. “At nationals, we’re going to need other guys like Cox and (freshman defenseman Colten) Kovich even scored this weekend, to step up and score some goals. (Kovich) loves to shoot and that’s really going to work if we just get guys to the net.”
The Beavers answered less than three minutes later when Davis Sheldon finished feeds from Christian Kadolph and Troy Hamilton, knotting it at 1-1 with 5:37 to go in the period.
Then, with 19.8 seconds left in the first, Jason Foltz received a pass back from fellow junior forward Kam Ottenbreit and threaded a shot from the inside edge of the left circle past Anthony’s glove inside the top-right corner of the cage from a difficult angle, lifting Liberty to a 2-1 advantage.
Foltz extended Liberty’s lead to 3-1 at the 18:01 mark of the second period when he took a short drop-back pass from Bartel as they skated into the right circle and released a shot that trickled in off the pad of Anthony inside the lower right post.
The Beavers rallied to tie the contest by netting two goals over the next 10 minutes, with the first coming seconds after Liberty killed off a penalty, on a shot from the high slot by defenseman Brayden Pawl that forward Landyn Cochrane deflected past Virostek with 14:00 to go in the second period. Then, forward Drew Carter took an entry pass from Minot’s leading scorer Carter Barley and lifted a backhanded wrist shot that beat Virostek top shelf, tying it at 3-3 with 8:38 left in the second.
The Beavers completed their comeback by tacking on two more unanswered goals in the third period, with Howard netting the game-winner at the 12:20 mark after winning a faceoff in the defensive end and starting and finishing a fast break with a sharp-angled backhander off a nifty lead return pass from Joey Moffatt through the right circle.
“The fourth goal, the game-winner is a nice shot, a backhand,” Handy said, noting that Liberty was outshot by Minot, 40-33, and Virostek made 35 saves. “Hunter’s played well for us. He’s been unbelievable. We had our chances. We had two power plays and weren’t able to score on those.”
All eight of the game’s goals were scored at even strength. After failing to capitalize on a power play, the Flames pulled Virostek to create a 6-on-5 advantage for the final 1:30 and the Beavers made the move backfire when Sheldon tapped in an empty-netter after Barley’s shot from beyond the red line bounced off the back boards right to him.
“You want to win that one really bad on Senior Night for sure, but it was a really good battle,” Schwenke said. “The momentum’s definitely on our side. Nationals are three weeks away, so we want to take what we can from this series and keep working.”
“I really like our line combos, and we’re going to need all four lines down the stretch,” Handy added. “There’s no excuse. We’ll be ready to go for nationals and we’ll be excited to see how it goes.”
Schwenke said the Flames will look to make the most of the next week of recovery time to heal up before looking to make a deep run in Marlborough, Mass.
“First thing we’re going to rest, and then two weeks before nationals we’re going to get right back at it full-speed,” he said. “Other teams are going to be playing in conference finals so they’re going to be in game shape, so we’ve got to do our best to make practices feel like that, too.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media