Flames fully focused on rematch with Fighting Illini in ACHA DI nationals opener in St. Louis
When it comes to competing in the National Championships, veteran players on Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team know it’s a completely different brand of hockey than they’ve experienced during the regular season.
“It seems everybody tightens up and makes way fewer mistakes,” senior defenseman and head captain Colin Baird said as the No. 5-seeded Flames prepare to face No. 12 Illinois in Saturday’s 11:15 a.m. (EST) opener. “Everybody’s playing a little safer, a little harder, and you’ve just got to battle through it.”
“You’ve got to tighten up a little bit and play simple hockey, play hard hockey, and we’ve really got a chance here,” he added. “Everybody’s really excited and we’ve got to keep that energy high as well.”
He said special teams will play an even larger role in the tournament, and Liberty will look to make every line shift — as well as each penalty kill and power play — count.
“We’ve got to be super disciplined at nationals,” Baird said. “We don’t want to get caught up in penalties that could be costly, and if we do get a chance at a power play, we have to capitalize … because you don’t know how many you’re going to get.”
On Friday afternoon, Liberty held its first practice at the Centene Community Ice Arena — site of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues’ practice facility and this week’s five ACHA national tournaments (DI, II, and III men and DI and II women) in Maryland Heights, Mo. It was the Flames’ third practice overall since defeating Maryville University in Tuesday’s regular-season-ending clash in nearby Chesterfield, Mo.
As they pursue their first-ever national title, the Flames have the familiarity factor of having faced the two-time national champion Fighting Illini once already this season, winning 6-3 to advance to the final of the Chicago Classic against UNLV. (Coincidentally, the No. 4-seeded Runnin’ Rebels, who won two out of three meetings with the Flames this season, would also be Sunday’s quarterfinal opponent after eliminating No. 13 Pittsburgh on Friday, 5-2.)
Baird, alternate captains Chaydan Lauber, a graduate defenseman, and senior forward Matt Bartel, as well as other upperclassmen, have taken the 11 newcomers on this season’s squad under their collective wings and given them sound advice on how to approach their first postseasons with the Flames.
“We have excellent leadership that knows how to step up and our young guys need to look to them and learn to play like them,” Baird said, noting that the chemistry between the veterans and rookies was instantaneous. “We’re all so close. I’ve just told them, ‘Games are hard, but it’s still hockey. You’ve played this sport every day since you were a kid. You’ve just got to go out there, have some fun and work hard and good things will happen.’”
“It’s always a little sad coming to the end of a year, but we have a fun way to end it and everybody wants to go out with a bang,” he added.
Scouting Preview for ACHA National Championships opener: No. 12 Illinois (20-15-1) vs. (No. 5 Liberty (20-8-1), Saturday at 11:15 a.m. (EST) at the Centene Community Ice Center. All games in all five divisions of the National Championships will be streamed live by the ACHA on HockeyTV.com, which offers a monthly subscription for $25.
All-Time Series: Liberty leads 1-0 after beating the Fighting Illini in the second round of the Chicago Classic on Nov. 20.
Liberty Scouting Report: The Flames must win four games in four days to clinch their first ACHA Division I national title, and they have conditioned all year for such a postseason run, starting with three-day power-skating clinic in late August. They have the depth of talent and balance of playoff experience and youthful energy and excitement to be a legitimate contender for the title, and are battle-tested having faced several ranked opponents throughout the season.
Offensively, the Flames feature a balanced attack ignited by sophomore forward Jason Foltz (14 goals, 27 assists), Bartel (14G, including 4 game winners, 20A), senior forward Josh Fricks (11G, 21A), and freshmen forwards Jacob Kalandyk (14G, 13A) and Jackson Vercellono (10G, 16A). Baird (4G, 20A), sophomore forwards DJ Schwenke (11G, 11A) and Kam Ottenbreit (11G, 10A), and graduate defenseman and alternate captain Chaydan Lauber (8G, 12A), have provided plenty of supplemental scoring.
Bartel, Schwenke, Baird, and Lauber have also played integral roles on the Flames’ special teams, especially on the penalty kill, which has been successful on 90.08 percent of its chances this season (109 out of 121). Liberty has converted 31 out of 114 power-play opportunities (27.19 percent), led by Bartel (9), Kalandyk (6), and Vercellono (4).
In goal, the Liberty has leaned on Hunter Virostek (16-7-1, 2.35 goals-against average, 92.6 save percentage, 1 shutout) with backup from fellow junior Cédric Le Sieur (3-1, 2.05 GAA, 93.6 SP, 2 SO) and senior Tyler Myers (1-0, 2.66 GAA, 84.2 SP, 1 SO).
Illinois Scouting Report: After losing their first eight games of the season, the Fighting Illini have gone 20-7-1 since Oct. 15, including 15-1 on their home ice. Illinios won 13 of its final 15 games, including a sweep of Ohio University in a regular-season-ending home series, before being eliminated in the Feb. 26 first round of the CSCHL tournament by No. 3-ranked Iowa State — which had dealt it its last two regular-season losses — 6-5.
Having played seven more games than the Flames this season, the Fighting Illini feature two of the top 20 scorers in ACHA Division I — Kacper Ryba (31G, 29A), who ranks ninth with 60 points, and Braden Stewart (24G, including 5 game winners, 26A), who ranks 19th with 50. Fellow forwards Brandon Hay (18G, 20A) and Kip Hoffman (16G, 5 game winners, 22A) are tied for third on the team. Elliot Gerth (16-14-1, 3.61 GAA, 89.2 SP, 1 SO) has started the majority of games in goal.
Coaches: Kirk Handy is in his 22nd season at the helm of the Flames with a career record of 497-198-30, earning ACHA Coach of the Year honors after guiding them to a 33-4 mark in 2019-20. He could pick up his 500th career win by leading Liberty to Tuesday’s championship final. Nick Fabbrini is in his ninth season as head coach of the Fighting Illini, where he played on Illinois’ two ACHA DI national championship teams in 2005 and 2008. He was a finalist for the 2013 and 2018 ACHA Coach of the Year honors.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer