Flames overpower Fighting Illini in opener with offensive punch in all three periods
Competing in its opening game of the National Championships, Liberty University’s No. 5-seeded ACHA Division I men’s hockey team strung three consistent periods together to pull away from No. 12 Illinois, 7-1, Saturday morning at Centene Community Ice Center, home of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues practice facility.
“I was really happy with our guys’ approach to the game today,” Flames Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “Illinois was a tough opponent, but I thought we came ready to play and played pretty solid hockey. We have room for improvement, so we’ll go back tonight and look to tighten some things up for tomorrow.”
Liberty (21-8-1) will face fourth-seeded UNLV for the fourth time this season on Sunday at 11:15 a.m. (EST), streamed live on HockeyTV.
Against the Fighting Illini (20-16-1), senior forward Josh Fricks was a spark plug for the Flames’ attack, assisting two of their first three goals and scoring a fourth. He chased down a long outlet to prevent an icing call and set up sophomore forward Jason Foltz in front for a top-shelf finish past Illinois goalie Elliot Gerth and a 1-0 Liberty lead with 14:34 left in the first period.
Freshman forward Matt Berezowski struck the left post with his shot from the left circle before Liberty was called for tripping on a two-on-one chance by Illinois and junior goalie Hunter Virostek made clutch pad and glove saves on the period’s only penalty kill.
Moments later, with 3:42 to go in the first, junior defenseman Cam Kuhl received senior forward Devin Melice’s pass out of the left corner and launched a one-timed shot from just inside the blue line that veered into the top right corner of the cage for a 2-0 Flames edge.
Just 29 seconds into the second period, Liberty added a third goal when senior forward Matt Bartel put away a long rebound in the left crease of a shot by Fricks from the right side that glanced off Gerth’s pad. Then, at the 16:55 mark, Fricks finished a fast break counterattack unassisted with a wrist shot from deep in the left circle over Gerth’s shoulder for a 4-0 lead.
Freshman forward Jacob Kalandyk came out of the penalty box after the Flames’ second successful PK and was awarded a penalty shot after being taken down in the crease. He skated in and lifted his free shot over the blocker of Gerth into the top right corner to stretch Liberty’s advantage to 5-0 with 9:43 left in the second.
A power play putback by Fighting Illinis forward Braden Stewart after an initial shot by Kacper Ryba ended Flames junior goalie Hunter Virostek’s shutout bid with 3:08 to play in the period.
Three and a half minutes into the third period, Liberty added a shorthanded goal by Berezowski off a cross-crease assists from sophomore forwards Kam Ottenbreit and DJ Schwenke, extending its lead to 6-1.
Schwenke nearly added another score after taking a long outlet down the center of the ice before having his backhanded shot on a breakaway gloved from behind by Gerth. Then, with two and a half minutes to play, freshman forward Aleksandr Charin stole the puck in the slot and lifted his wrist shot past Gerth for the 7-1 final score.
Illinois outshot Liberty for the contest, 32-30, and Virostek made 31 saves to secure the victory.
“They had a lot of shots, but we liked where their shots were coming from a lot of times and Hunter played a really nice game in the net,” Handy said. “Our (forward) lines were all going and our guys buried on their chances. We were very efficient offensively today.”
Handy is hopeful that offensive energy will carry over into Sunday’s showdown with the Rebels in a rematch of the Nov. 21 Chicago Classic final and a Jan. 29-30 series split at the LaHaye Ice Center (LIC).
“We know each other, having played them three times, and all three have been tight, so it’ll be a great game tomorrow and we’re looking forward to it,” Handy said. “We really like our team and what we’re doing right now. We have to take each day as it comes. Now that we are able to move past Illinois, we can put all of our attention toward UNLV.”
Scouting Preview, National Championships Quarterfinal: No. 4 UNLV (27-4-1) vs. No. 5 Liberty (21-8-1), Sunday at 11:15 a.m. (EST) at Centene Community Ice Center. All games in all five divisions of the ACHA Tournament are being streamed live by HockeyTV, a pay-per-view streaming service with a monthly subscription option.
All-time series: UNLV leads 2-1.
Liberty Scouting Report: In the first game against the Rebels at the LIC, Foltz, Ottenbreit and Bartel each netted two goals to spark the Flames’ attack and snap UNLV’s 16-game winning streak with a 7-4 victory.
Foltz (15 goals, 27 assists), Bartel (15G, including 4 game winners, 20A), Fricks (12G, 23A), and Kalandyk (15G, 13A) have fueled the forward lines while graduate defenseman and head captain Colin Baird (4G, 20A) and alternate captain Chaydan Lauber (8G, 12A), have solidified the back end.
UNLV Scouting Report: The Rebels, coming off a 5-2 second-round win over No. 13-seeded Pittsburgh, have gone 7-0-1 in their last eight games, starting with the “Midnight Mayhem” game on Jan. 30.
UNLV’s attack is anchored by forwards Max Johnson (20G, 13A) and Cole Wyatt (6G, 25A) and defenseman Alec Johnson (9G, 20A). Max Johnson and Nicolas Flanders have both netted five game-winners.
In goal, the Rebels have relied on Zach Wickson (17-2-1, 2.03 goals-against average, 93.0 save percentage) with backup from Vince Benedetto (9-2, 3.18 GAA, 89.7 SP).
Coaches: Kirk Handy is in his 22nd season as the Flames’ head coach, guiding them to an overall record of 498-198-30. Anthony Vignieri Greener is in his seventh season at the helm of his former team. He led the Rebels to the ACHA DII National Championships before transitioning the team to DI and guiding it to nationals for the second time this season.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media