Flames open 5-0 lead on No. 2 Rebels, complete sweep to leave Vegas on high note
A 5-2 victory over No. 2-ranked UNLV at the City National Arena in Las Vegas gave Liberty University’s No. 4 ACHA Division I men’s hockey team an improbable sweep, and plenty to be thankful for as the Flames head their separate ways to celebrate Thanksgiving with families and friends.
Dozens of alumni and family and friends of current players traveled to Las Vegas for a special Varsity Club event coordinated with Liberty’s showdown with the Skatin’ Rebels. After a lopsided loss to NCAA Division I Alaska Anchorage on Thursday, the Flames (12-5) did not disappoint their fan base.
“I am super proud of our guys,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “What an unbelievable effort tonight. Thank the Lord for the opportunity to come out here and I am thankful that the guys played so well on Friday and Saturday night. We asked a lot of them as a coaching staff and I am super proud of how they responded.”
Liberty was shorthanded, especially among its defensive corps, with a few players sidelined by injuries. That included senior defenseman and head captain Colin Baird, who was injured this weekend but returned in a limited capacity for the Flames on Saturday, particularly on the penalty kill.
“We had guys step up and Hunter (Virostek) played fantastic in net again for us,” Handy said after UNLV outshot Liberty, 30-24, and Virostek made 28 saves. “This was huge for our team, playing these top teams in No. 1 Minot State, No. 3 Adrian, and No. 2 UNLV and winning our share of them. Our first weekend (of the season), we went to Minot and played two tight games and lost them both. Then, we go to Adrian (Mich.) College and we win one of two. So, to come into Las Vegas and win both games against UNLV is huge. It shows that we are heading in the right direction, and we need to keep going.”
The Flames started with a goal reminiscent of one that helped break open Friday night’s opener against the Rebels, an odd-man rush finish by junior forward Truett Olson. This time, Olson weaved his way past two UNLV defensemen up the left wing before skating into the left crease to start the scoring for the Flames just 2:02 after the opening faceoff.
Then, with the Flames on the power play, senior forward Matt Bartel tipped a shot on goal by junior forward Jason Foltz that bounced off the blocker of UNLV netminder Zach Wickson right to junior forward DJ Schwenke. He punched in the putback from point-blank range for a 2-0 Liberty lead with 3:31 left in the first.
With 1:05 remaining in the period, junior forward Kam Ottenbreit controlled a loose puck on an outlet from senior defenseman Tom Nagle that bounced off the left boards. He swiped it from a UNLV defenseman and cut across the slot before depositing a backhander inside the right post that put the Flames up 3-0 going into the first intermission.
Moments after killing off a UNLV power play, the Flames capitalized on a well-executed fast break with freshman defenseman Laz Kaebel skating the puck across the blue line and sending a pass across the high slot to senior forward Jackson Vercellono. He sliced into the right circle and launched a shot into the upper netting, extending Liberty’s lead to 4-0. Then, with the Flames on a power play, Foltz and senior forward Josh Fricks set up Kaebel for a rocket of a slapshot in the top of the left circle into the top-right corner of the cage for a commanding 5-0 advantage with 7:09 left in the second period.
“The line of Vercellono, Olson, and (junior forward Jacob) Kalandyk has been great for us this season and Laz (Kaebel) rips an unbelievable shot on the power play that makes it 5-0,” Handy said.
UNLV (7-6) finally got on the scoreboard with 16:44 to go in the game after Brendan Manning sent a pass through the right circle to linemate Nicholas Flanders at the endline. From there, he tucked an assist between a Liberty defenseman and the right post to defenseman Robert McCollum in the slot for a backhanded finish in front, trimming the deficit to 5-1. Then, with 14:44 left, Kyle Quinn took a pass from Alec Johnson at the left point and launched a howitzer of a shot through traffic and past Virostek for the final score.
“UNLV had some momentum in the third period, and we took it away for parts of the period, but playing three games in three nights was tough,” Handy said. “Our guys stuck with it. The resiliency of our team has been fantastic. I am so happy for our guys. They played well and earned a long break for Thanksgiving.”
The Flames will return to the LaHaye Ice Center for their final series of the fall semester on Dec. 2 -3 with the opening puck drop set for 11:59 p.m. that Friday in the second “Midnight Mayhem” matchup of the season, with the third and final being against UNLV on Jan. 21.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer