Flames look to limit penalties, extend winning streak in home series against Blue Hens
Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team rose three rungs to No. 4 in this week’s national rankings, sending Stony Brook plummeting eight spots to No. 18.
“It was nice (to get that bump), but we’ve got our work still cut out for us,” Flames Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “We are definitely looking forward to competing this weekend and getting better against another ESCHL team in the Top 25 this week.”
This weekend, Liberty hopes to avoid an upset against Delaware — a team it has not lost to since being swept in Newark, Del., in January 2017 — in front of a College For A Weekend (CFAW) crowd, before traveling to Las Vegas next week to face NCAA Division I Alaska Anchorage once and UNLV, the No. 1-ranked team in ACHA DI, twice on its home ice.
“We aren’t overlooking anyone,” Handy said. “We’re going to focus on Friday night and not even worry about Saturday yet. It is an important weekend for us. We want to continue to prove to ourselves, most importantly, how good our team can be. We want to make sure that we’re executing at a high level, to continue to take that next step. Our focus has to be fully on Friday night.”
He said the Flames need to cut down the penalties after racking up 12 for a total of 30 minutes (including two five-minute misconduct penalties) in the opener against Stony Brook.
“In that first game, we would have liked to have played more at even strength,” Handy said after sophomore defenseman Colten Kovich and senior forward Josh Fricks were assessed five-minute majors that put Liberty on extended, non-releasable penalty kills. “We took way too many penalties. We want to continue to refine our 5-on-5 play, to continue to improve our special teams, and continue to work on our discipline. That got to be our focus right there that’s going to continue to be needed as we progress throughout the season.”
He said consistency will be the key to the Flames’ success throughout the rest of the fall and into the spring semester capped by the ACHA DI National Championships near Boston.
“Being where you want to be at the end of the year doesn’t happen without having that be a focus — to make sure that you’re at your best consistently — throughout the season,” Handy said. “At the end of the day, it is important to learn how to play effectively every practice and not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
“We want to take it game by game,” Flames senior forward Jackson Vercellono added. “We’ve got to just work on our mental state of playing a full 60 minutes and staying out of the box so that we can get a good flow going as well as just keeping our focus and our mindset on nationals and getting there by taking it game by game.”
Scouting Preview for Games 13-14: No. 25 Delaware (8-5) at No. 4 Liberty (8-4), Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the LaHaye Ice Center (LIC). Both games will be streamed live on ESPN+.
All-Time Series: Liberty leads Delaware, 30-18-2, and is riding a 17-game winning streak against the Blue Hens after sweeping all five meetings in the 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20 seasons, including all three clashes in the ESCHL playoffs.
Liberty Scouting Report: The Flames swept Delaware in their only series last season, played at Liberty, by 10-1 and 3-0 scores. Vercellono had a hat trick in the opener while the Flames scored five power-play goals. In the second game, the penalty kill unit shut down all eight of the Blue Hens’ chances and goalie Cédric Le Sieur posted a shutout.
Last weekend against Stony Brook, Flames junior forward Jacob Kalandyk — Liberty’s leading scorer with 9 goals and 8 assists on the season — netted two goals and one assist in the 6-5 opening win. Then in the rematch, delayed 30 minutes after a power outage on campus, Liberty had seven different goal scorers in a decisive 7-1 victory. Vercellono (6G, 8A) is tied with junior forward Jason Foltz (8G, 6A), last season’s leading scorer, and freshman defenseman Laz Kaebel (3G, 11A) for second place in points, followed closely by senior defenseman and head captain Colin Baird (1G, 11A) and forwards Kam Ottenbreit (5G, 6A), and Fricks (3G, 8A).
Senior goalie Hunter Virostek (7-4, 2.89 goals-against average, 92.0 save percentage) started both games against Stony Brook, weathering a storm in the opener — when the Seawolves scored three of their five goals on the power play — before giving up just one goal in Game 2. This season, Le Sieur (1-0, 2.40 GAA, 88.9 SP), now a senior, has again been effective when called upon, allowing just four goals in 100 minutes between the pipes.
While the Flames are expecting to have freshman defenseman Grant Morton and junior forward Nate Albers back from injury, and Fricks will be back in the lineup after he sat out Saturday’s rematch against the Seawolves with a game misconduct, Liberty will be without senior forward Brett Gammer and sophomore defenseman Luke Heimann due to injury.
Delaware Scouting Report: Since being swept at Rhode Island on Oct. 21-22, the Blue Hens have staged home-and-home sweeps of two other ESCHL rivals — New York University and Drexel. Previously, Delaware split a regular-season-opening series at Pitt, a home-and-home series against Navy, and a home series with Syracuse, also of the ESCHL. The Blue Hens have four forwards who have scored 14 points or more through 13 games — Ryan Rodrigues (12G, 10A), Tom Guido (12G, 7A), Jake Nimeh (8G, 8A), and Patrick Meckel (3G, 11A). In net, Jacob Snellenburg (5-2, 2.40 GAA, 92.2 SP) and Griffin Iglesias (3-3, 3.50 GAA, 90.1 SP) have platooned, with Snellenburg logging 400 minutes, 40 more than Iglesias.
Coaches: Handy is in his 23rd season at the helm for the Flames, having guided them to six consecutive ACHA DI National Championship tournaments and posted a career record of 506-203-29. Todd Mittelmeier was promoted to Delaware’s head coach in the middle of the 2018-19 season and sports a 62-47-1 record since then.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer