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    November 16, 2022 Las Vegas, Nev. RSS |

    It’s been nearly seven years since Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team has flown farther west than North Dakota for a hockey game. That was Feb. 13, 2016, when it traveled to Tempe, Ariz., to face Arizona State University in its first season at the NCAA Division I level, a 7-0 setback.

    This week, the Flames are in Las Vegas gearing up for Thursday night’s game against NCAA DI Alaska Anchorage — which was swept by ASU over the weekend — at City National Arena, the practice facility for the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights. Liberty, ranked No. 4 in this week’s ACHA DI computer rankings, will then challenge No. 2-ranked UNLV — which knocked it out in the quarterfinal round of last season’s ACHA DI National Championships near St. Louis — in a weekend series on the Rebels’ home ice.

    “We’re really looking forward to the opportunity to play three games against two great teams — to play another NCAA Division I program and two games against the (No. 2) ACHA team in the country,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said before the Rebels dropped from the No. 1 spot. “At end of the day, getting out here on trips like this is important to see where we will stack up at the end of the year. I am excited for our guys. They realize the importance of this series and they’ve been working hard, learning how to compete at a high level consistently in practice, and that translates into games.”

    “We’re going to have to bring our A game, for sure,” junior forward Kam Ottenbreit added. “Three (games) in three (nights), it’s going to be the toughest stretch we’ve had, but I think we’re ready for it. The intensity is high. We’re fired up and itching to get going.”

    After dropping four out of five games, the first two at new No. 1 Minot State (N.D.) on Oct. 7-8, the Flames have turned things around and are now riding a five-game winning streak into Vegas.

    “All the boys are clicking right now,” Ottenbreit said. “The coaches have been holding us a lot more accountable in practice …and everybody has bought in right now and the intensity is super high in the room. The guys are very motivated to get out there and prove that we can play against anybody, with anybody, and we can beat anybody.”

    The Flames will get a glimpse of what to expect from the Seawolves and Rebels on Wednesday when they watch them play head-to-head. They may have some down time away from the ice to clear their minds, get some fresh air, and exercise out in the heat of the Mohave Desert in southern Nevada.

    “The coaches do a really good job and understand that there are times we need to focus on other things besides hockey, to be able to relax so that when we get to the rink, we’re fully dialed in,” Ottenbreit said.

    Scouting Preview Games 15-17: Liberty (10-4) vs. Alaska Anchorage (4-8, 2-8 NCAA DI), Thursday at 10:40 p.m. EST at City National Arena in Las Vegas; No. 4 Liberty (10-4) at No. 2 UNLV (7-3, 7-0 ACHA DI), Friday and Saturday at 10:30 p.m. EST at City National Arena. All three games will be streamed live on the UNLV Hockey YouTube channel.

    All-time series: UNLV leads 3-1, with all four meetings last season. The Rebels proved to be a thorn in Liberty’s side, beating the Flames in the championship game of the Chicago Classic, again in a “Midnight Mayhem” rematch at the LaHaye Ice Center in January, and finally in the ACHA DI National Championship quarterfinals last March. In the first game against the Rebels at the LIC, Ottenbreit, Jason Foltz, and Matt Bartel each netted two goals to spark Liberty’s attack and snap UNLV’s 16-game winning streak with a 7-4 victory.

    Liberty Scouting Report: Assistant Coach Dan Berthiaume loaded up the Flames’ power play with extra offensive firepower in Saturday’s 10-0 rout of Delaware. Besides senior staples Matt Bartel (5 goals, 9 assists) and Josh Fricks (4G, 14A) and junior DJ Schwenke (9G, 3A), he sent in an extra forward — often leading scorer junior Jacob Kalandyk (12G, 10A) or third-leading scorer senior Jason Foltz (10G, 8A) — to join the unit along with freshman defenseman Laz Kaebel (5G, 12A), Liberty’s fifth-leading scorer.

    “Fricks has been great for us, especially this (past) weekend,” Ottenbreit said after Fricks distributed three of his four assists on the power play. “(Kalandyk, who scored twice) has one of the best shots in this league, if not the best, and Foltz can find the net really well. Laz (Kaebel) can fire the puck and he’s finally finding the net and I think he’s going to continue to.”

    Senior forward Jackson Vercellono (6G, 13A) has moved into second place among scoring leaders and senior defenseman Colin Baird (1G, 15A) leads the team in assists.

    With a battered defensive corps still healing from injuries, Handy called up two defensemen from Liberty’s DII squad to make the trip — sophomore Rece Poulin, who played both games against the Blue Hens last weekend, and graduate Alex Norwinski — as well as sophomore forward Josh Harrell, the DII team’s head captain who played well in one DI game against Stony Brook.

    “The DII guys have been great,” Ottenbreit said. “They stepped right up, came in, and looked like they belonged here and definitely helped us out.”

    Norwinski started his Flames career at the DIII level before moving up to DII in 2019-20 and spending the past two seasons with the DI team. He dropped back down to DII this fall as he pursues a master’s degree.

    In goal, Cédric LeSieur (3-0, 1.91 goals-against average, 92.4 save percentage) started back-to-back games against Delaware, allowing three goals in the opener before posting his first shutout of the season in the second game. Fellow senior Hunter Virostek (7-4, 2.89 GAA, 92.0 SP) has played nearly three times as many minutes between the pipes.

    Alaska Anchorage Scouting Report: Since sweeping UNLV by 8-0 and 2-1 scores at the Seawolf Sports Complex in Anchorage on Oct. 14-15, the Seawolves have struggled against NCAA DI competition, losing five of their past six games to the likes of Air Force and Arizona State. Their two NCAA DI wins have come in series splits against Northern Michigan and Western Michigan. In 10 games against NCAA DI opponents, UAA has been outscored 41-17, with its leading scorer, defenseman Derek Hamelin, netting no goals and only 8 assists. Forwards Connor Marritt (4G, 2A) and Maximillion Helgeson (2G, 4A) are tied for second among scoring leaders.

    The Seawolves have leaned on goalies Nolan Kent (1-4, 2.95 GAA, 91.7 SP) and Joey Lamoureux (1-3, 5.72 GAA, 82.6 SP). In the 8-0 series-opening rout against UNLV, when UAA outshot its guests, 41-18, Jared Whale (0-1 vs. NCAA teams, 2.07 GAA, 95.2 SP) posted the shutout.

    UNLV Scouting Report: In seven games against ACHA DI competition this season, the Rebels are 7-0 and have outscored opponents, 30-13. They have won four in a row since being swept at Anchorage, sweeping ASU’s ACHA DI team at home and Colorado State on the road. UNLV’s attack is sparked by forwards Cole Wyatt (4G, 7A), Nicolas Flanders (5G, 4A), and Azzaro Tinling (5G, 3A), with three of Flanders’ goals coming on the power play and two of Tinling’s scores game-winners.

    In goal, the Rebels have relied on Zach Wickson (4-0, 2.25 GAA, 92.8 SP) with backup from Landon Pavlisin (3-0, 2.00 GAA, 92.4 SP).

    Coaches: Handy is in his 23rd season at the helm for Liberty, having guided his alma mater to six consecutive ACHA DI National Championship tournaments and posted a career record of 508-203-29. Alaska Anchorage is coached by Matt Shasby, a former Seawolves player in his first season at the helm after the team ceased operations for the 2021-22 season before reviving the program this year. Anthony Vignieri Greener is in his eighth season at the helm at UNLV, also his former team. He led the Rebels to the ACHA DII National Championships before transitioning the team to DI in 2017-18 and guiding them to nationals for the second time last season, reaching the semifinals for the first time.

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer

    Junior forward Kris Bladen handles the puck in front against the Rebels last season at the LIC.