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    September 30, 2022 Lynchburg, Va. RSS |

    A stellar performance by junior goalie Hunter Virostek helped Liberty University’s fifth-ranked ACHA Division I men’s hockey team preserve a 4-1 series-opening victory over No. 13 Niagara University, Friday night at the LaHaye Ice Center.

    “Hunter was phenomenal,” Flames Head Coach Kirk Handy said after Virostek made 29 saves, including a couple spectacular ones. “He played really well. He was our best player tonight.”

    The Flames (3-0) opened a 2-0 lead on in the first period before weathering a persistent Purple Eagles comeback bid in a scoreless second period and netting two more goals in the third.

    Kovich gets back onto the ice surrounded by Liberty Assistant Coach Jonathan Chung, Associate Head Coach Jeff Boettger, and Head Coach Kirk Handy.

    “It was a good game,” Handy said. “Niagara played really well and it was a battle, a very close game … the type of game that we thought we were going to get when you’ve got two top teams going at it. We’ve got another gear and we’ve got to get there (Saturday). We’ll be ready to go. We’re going to have to play better.”

    With just under 14 minutes left in the first period, Liberty sophomore defenseman Nate Cox received a pass out of the slot from junior forward DJ Schwenke and skated in deep through the right circle before firing a sharp-angled shot past Niagara goalie Grant Zell into the upper netting for a 1-0 lead.

    “Nate jumped in the play there and that was a nice play,” Handy said. “He comes in and works hard and battles every night.”

    Then, with 5:25 left in the first, senior defenseman and head captain Colin Baird launched a shot from near the blue line along the left boards that sophomore forward Truett Olson, stationed in the left crease, deftly deflected past Zell into the lower left corner of the cage, doubling Liberty’s lead.

    However, exactly one minute later, the Purple Eagles (1-1) executed a quick counterattack to perfection, with forward Devin Sanders finishing fast-break feeds from defenseman Quinn Schneidmiller and forward Rylan Clemons, trimming the deficit to 2-1 at the 4:25 mark.

    Less than a minute into the third period, Jacob Kalandyk pounced on outlet passes from fellow junior forward Jason Foltz and Vercellono and skated down the right wing before slicing around Niagara defenseman Connor Loft along the inside edge of the right circle and beating Zell glove-side with a shot in the right crease, padding Liberty’s advantage to 3-1.

    Defenseman Grant Morton chases after the puck in front of goalie Hunter Virostek.

    “That was a huge goal by (Kalandyk),” Handy said. “In a 2-1 game, he comes in and makes a nice move and scores a nice goal.”

    The Purple Eagles pulled Zell for the final 90 seconds and Foltz capped the scoring with 8.4 seconds left. He chased down a long outlet pass from sophomore defenseman Tom Nagle and skated the puck past Clemons into the cage moments after narrowly missing another empty-net attempt as he was tripped up along the left boards.

    Liberty outshot the Purple Eagles, 51-30, for the contest and won the faceoff duels, 33-25.

    “The team battled hard, especially near the end,” said Virostek, who was named the first star of the contest. “It’s nice to win that, but it’s an overall team thing. For a while there mentally, I was kind of struggling in the game. The first period, I’m just glad they didn’t have anything too crazy going. In that second period, I kind of found it and got my feet under me.”

    He said taking a shot to the chest to stop a backdoor two-on-one opportunity by the Purple Eagles in the second period helped turn the game around for him.

    “Making that save was huge for me personally, just with my confidence,” Virostek said. “We goalies have a lot of padding, not much hurts us. I just take it one shot at a time. From there, it felt good. The game flowed nicely and the boys battled hard.”

    He expects an even tougher test from Niagara, an ESCHL newcomer that went 28-4-1 last season to qualify for its second straight national tournament.

    Virostek crouches down on a save beside defenseman Colin Baird.

    “They’re going to want to beat us,” Virostek said. “It was a close game and they do have the potential. They’re going to be coming hard, so we’ve just got to be ready. We just need to keep working hard, keep it simple, keep playing our game and doing what we need to do to be successful.”

    “We need to play 60 minutes,” Handy added. “It’s a great opportunity for us. We need to be better as a team and as a group come together and have a better effort.”

    The contest will be the first of three “Midnight Mayhem” matchups of the season, with a Hawaiian theme making for a unique atmosphere for the crowd on hand for the 11:59 p.m. puck drop.

    “We have only a select few Midnight games a year, so it will be good. It will be fun,” Virostek said. “The fans will love it.”

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media

    Defenseman Laz Kaebel skates the puck behind his own cage under pressure from Purple Eagles forward Rylan Clemons.