Flames net two goals in final two minutes to secure 6-5 series-opening win
Old rivalries die hard, as Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team discovered Friday night at the LaHaye Ice Center, battling former ESCHL foe Stony Brook to a penalty-plagued 6-5 triumph at the LaHaye Ice Center.
In a fiercely fought showdown between two teams ranked in the top 10 in ACHA Division I, the Flames (8-4) leaped out to a 3-1 lead in the first period before being outscored 2-1 in the second and answering the Seawolves’ first two goals in the third with two of their own.
“I thought our guys played well tonight,” said Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy, who had a short bench with forwards Brett Gammer and Nate Albers and defenseman Grant Morton sidelined by injury. He was pleased to see senior defenseman and head captain Colin Baird take a vocal lead and back it up by example, assisting the last two goals. “I loved our guys’ response. Right at the end of the third there, great leadership from Colin. He came by the bench and he not only brought the guys in and gave a great little talk, but he responded by the way he played.”
Senior forward Truett Olson had a shot from the left circle clang off the post early in the first period and Kam Ottenbreit had a couple quality chances denied by Stony Brook goalie Matvei Kazakov before the Flames finally cashed in with 12:59 left in the first period when fellow junior forward Jacob Kalandyk tucked in the rebound of Olson’s shot from the left circle after he had received Jackson Vercellono’s pass from the high slot.
Junior forward DJ Schwenke doubled Liberty’s lead to 2-0 at the 11:23 mark when he took the puck from Ottenbreit along the back boards and sneaked a backhand past Kazakov from the left crease inside the left post.
Stony Brook (8-2) cut the deficit in half when Brandon Avezov finished a feed from top scorer Greg Barnych for his seventh goal of the season with 9:02 left in the first.
The Flames reopened their two-goal lead with 6:23 to play in the period when sophomore forward Joe Clark, stationed in the left crease, slammed home the loose putback of freshman defenseman Laz Kaebel’s shot from the right point, set up by Baird. However, with one second remaining on Stony Brook’s 5-on-3 advantage midway through the second period, Avezov skated the puck through the slot and slid it through the five-hole, trimming the Seawolves’ deficit to 3-2.
Liberty went on a 5-on-3 of its own and cashed in at the 4:51 mark when Kalandyk again cleaned up around the goal, finishing the rebound of a shot by Kaebel set up by junior forward Jason Foltz.
But Flames defenseman Colten Kovich was issued a five-minute misconduct penalty with two minutes left in the second period and Stony Brook was awarded another 5-on-3 for the last 46 seconds and the first 1:14 of the third.
That opened the door for the Seawolves to pull within 4-3 on a backhanded finish by Devin Pepe near the right post at the 19:33 mark before a five-minute major assessed to Flames senior forward Josh Fricks allowed Stony Brook to net the equalizer with 9:02 remaining in regulation when Avezov capped his hat trick off assists from Pepe and Barnych.
Liberty never trailed, but nearly put itself in a hole by accruing 30 minutes of penalties on the night.
“We need to learn from it,” Handy said. “We have to be more disciplined. We were in the box a lot tonight, although I don’t agree with all of the calls. There were a lot of penalties on us and not a lot on them. Maybe I’ll leave it at that. We need to be better.”
“That’s many more penalty minutes than we want, but our PK stepped up in a big way and stepped up in a big way,” junior forward Kris Bladen added. “They played a lot of minutes and battled hard and got the job done for us, and same with (goalie) Hunter (Virostek). He battled hard all night.”
Though the Flames’ PK unit gave up three goals, it kept them in the game, as did Virostek (34 saves), and Liberty’s offense, which outshot Stony Brook, 48-39.
“We like to keep our penalty kill above 90 percent, but were killing for over half the game and sometimes you’re not going to get every bounce you want,” Bladen said. “Those (5-minute majors) killed, especially the two 5-on-3s they had as well. I thought we came out really hard. We had a really good battle the whole night. I was really proud of our team, the way we battled and didn’t let anything get in our heads all night, just kept coming back even strength whenever we got the chances.”
Liberty generated two shorthanded breakaway opportunities on the last few minutes of the 5-minute major, but Olson and Ottenbreit were both denied by Kazakov.
Back at 5-on-5, the Flames came through in the clutch when Bladen deflected in Baird’s shot from along the left boards with 2:22 to go. Just 30 seconds later, senior forward Jackson Vercellono received a feed from Baird and buried a shot from the high slot, giving Liberty an insurance goal and a 6-4 lead.
“Net-front traffic, great shot by Baird,” Handy said, noting Bladen was in the right place at the right time to put the Flames back on top to stay.
“Just got in there and tried to crash the net and Colin makes a good play, shoots it off my leg and in,” Bladen added. “Vercellono had a great shot in the slot. When he got that puck, he didn’t make any mistake with that. It was a laser to the bottom corner.”
Liberty would need the extra score as the Seawolves struck back with 1:29 to play when Nick Zarrilli tucked in an assist from Jesse Edwards, making it a one-goal game.
The Flames will be without Fricks for Saturday night’s rematch, set for 1 p.m. back at the LIC.
“We’re happy to come out with a win; we’ve got to do it again tomorrow,” Bladen said. “We’ve got to keep going to the net, keep battling hard, and stay out of the box more. We want to play more 5-on-5 and I think we’ll be all right.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media