Flames’ national dreams dashed in OT by reigning champs
Taking on defending national champion Central Oklahoma in Saturday's ACHA National Tournament opener at the Chiller Ice Haus in Columbus, Ohio, Liberty University's DI men's hockey team showed no signs of intimidation.
The 10th-seeded Flames, riding a 19-game winning streak, battled head-to-head with the seventh-seeded Bronchos through three periods before being ousted in dramatic fashion, 2-1 in overtime.
"We battled the whole night tonight and played one of our best games of the season," Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said. "It was a fantastic season, our first-ever with 30 wins, including a record 19 straight, and (ESCHL) regular-season and tournament titles. We lost the game tonight, but our guys laid it all on the line."
Liberty had the better of the scoring chances in the first period, but both team's goalies — Central Oklahoma's Alex Henry and Liberty junior Cole Burack— held their ground.
Central Oklahoma broke the stalemate with 13:34 left in the second period when Bronchos forward Nial Mills stole the puck at the top of Liberty's right circle and sent a crossing pass to captain Josh Wyatt in the left circle. His one-timed fadeaway glanced off Burack's left pad through the five-hole for a 1-0 lead.
Burack saved a barrage of shots to kill a penalty a minute later, and the Flames responded by unleashing a flurry of shots around the Bronchos' cage in the final seven minutes of the period. But Henry, seeking his ninth shutout of the season, made two saves and his defensemen blocked the rest from close proximity.
After Flames junior defenseman Zane Schartz had a shot from the perimeter blocked, sophomore defensemen Jacob Fricks made a great defensive stop of Bronchos forward Landon Robin's point-blank try and Burack made a sprawling save of a drive from the top of the right circle seconds later.
Flames forward Grant Garvin, Liberty's leading scorer for a third year in a row and top points man in all of ACHA DI, nearly sneaked a breakaway opportunity between the pads of Henry as he slid through the crease.
With less than 10 minutes remaining, junior defenseman Basil Reynolds started a fast break along the left boards before setting up sophomore forward and head captain Josh Hamilton for a high-percentage shot in the left circle saved by Henry. Seconds later, Henry blocked shots from Hamilton and freshman forward Ryan Cox. Then, Henry repelled sophomore defenseman Garrett Nelson's sure-fire putback from on his stomach, using the back of his leg to kick it away. Cox nearly netted the equalizer by trying to tuck the puck through the five hole as he crashed into Henry through the right crease.
|Freshman forward Cole Gammer,|
Later, with the Flames digging the puck out of the Bronchos' back boards, Handy pulled Burack, giving them a six-on-five advantage for the final 1:10. The move paid off immediately as senior forward Tim Bierema came off the bench and recovered a clearing attempt in the right circle, sending it back to Schartz at the point. The top-scoring defenseman in ACHA DI sent a cross-ice assist to freshman forward Cole Gammer, the ESCHL Rookie of the Year, who threaded his one-timer between Henry's glove and the left post for the tying score with exactly 1:00 remaining in regulation.
Burack made a clutch save of a quality shot by Mills in the closing minute and the game went into a 20-minute sudden-death overtime period.
Action and scoring chances went back and forth throughout the OT. Flames sophomore forward Brock Thompson's driving shot in the right crease rejected by Henry at the 17:15 mark before Robin had his backhander blocked by Burack on the other end and Central Oklahoma forward Andrei Novikov had a short-ranged shot clang off the crossbar.
Finally, after the Bronchos dug the puck out of a scrum behind their own cage, starting a counterattack, leading scorer Donald Danroff drew Burack out of the goal by skating across the crease to the right side. He then backhanded the puck to Novikov deep in the right crease. The senior from Russia capitalized on only his third goal of the year, a point-blank finish top shelf over Liberty sophomore defenseman Chaydan Lauber, for the game-winner with 6:34 to go.
"There was great action on both ends, and both teams had chances to win it," Handy said. "It was a great game and I'm super proud of our guys. Seniors Garvin, and (Colt) Steele, and Bierema helped build a spiritual legacy and put our program back on the national map for sure. With our younger guys, we have built ourselves a strong foundation to move forward."
Central Oklahoma (29-5-3) advances to Sunday's 5:30 p.m. quarterfinal matchup with second-seeded Adrian (31-1), a 4-0 winner over Stony Brook earlier Saturday.
The Flames gather after Saturday's 2-1 season-ending overtime setback. (Photo by Patrick Strawn)