Flames suffer third straight loss in shootout; players, coaches praying for injured forward Fricks
A newfound rivalry between Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team and UNLV, started last season with the first four meetings in the series, intensified on Friday night at the LaHaye Ice Center as the two teams jockeyed for position in the national rankings. The Rebels broke a 3-3 tie in the series and 2-2 tie after overtime with a 3-2 shootout win overshadowed by a serious injury to Flames senior forward Josh Fricks.
No. 4 UNLV (13-5-1, 13-2-1 ACHA) and No. 5 Liberty (13-8-1) entered the series with the same rankings they had when they met in the quarterfinal round of last season’s ACHA DI National Championships in St. Louis, where the Rebels eliminated the Flames with a 4-2 setback. Liberty swept UNLV Nov. 19-20 in Las Vegas after losing to NCAA Division I Alaska Anchorage, the team that has dealt the Rebels their other three losses this season.
On Friday night, UNLV struck first on the power play, with defenseman Alec Johnson ripping a low wrist shot from the top of the left circle past Flames senior goalie Hunter Virostek at the 16:51 mark.
Then, with 13:02 to play in the period, Fricks landed a hard check on a UNLV player against the boards on the left side of the Rebels’ bench. Immediately after the collision, Fricks fell face-first to the ice and was attended to by Club Sports Assistant Director of Sports Medicine Josh Smith and Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine Angie Witt before being placed on a backboard and taken off the ice.
“He’s was airlifted to Roanoke, but we’re really unsure,” Flames Head Coach Kirk Handy said after the game. “We’re just praying for him right now. He’s in good hands (but) that’s real tough. Hockey comes secondary to a player’s safety.”
“It’s really scary to see that happen to one of your teammates,” junior forward DJ Schwenke added. “The impact he’s had on my life and everyone else’s lives is crazy. He’s going to get married here this summer and be a father someday. Hockey’s important and we work as hard as we can, but there’s life after this and that’s what we’re all thinking about. Obviously, God’s got him and he knows that. We live in a world of uncertainty and we hope for the best, but God’s got a bigger plan than we could ever think of.”
Senior forward Brett Gammer helped bring the crowd back into the contest, slamming home a second-chance putback of junior forward Kris Bladen’s shot from the high slot after Schwenke dug the puck out from along the boards, beating UNLV goalie Landon Pavlisin to tie the contest at 1-1 with 8:40 left.
Seconds after Liberty’s PK unit killed off a UNLV power play at 1:35 mark, the Rebels capitalized on a breakdown on the defensive end, with forward Jayson Dimizio crashing the cage and Jaedin Ness trailing the play and slipping the puck through the five-hole from point-blank range to reclaim a 2-1 lead just 1:35 before the first intermission.
Liberty retied the contest at 2-2 with 12:02 left in the second period when Schwenke deflected junior forward Jacob Kalandyk’s shot from the left wing past Pavlisin. It had two other near misses in the period, with forwards Sam Feamster and Bladen both hitting far posts with short-range shots.
The Flames killed off a penalty late in the third period, with Virostek (42 saves) making a series of clutch stops as he did throughout the contest.
“Hunter’s our backbone,” Schwenke said. “He’s amazing.”
“I was proud of our guys,” Handy added. “Hunter played well in net for us and (freshman defenseman) Reid (Bogenholm, a spring semester addition) had a good first game for us. Our guys battled hard tonight and we had a short bench without (forwards) Truett (Olson) and Kam (Ottenbreit) and (defenseman Grant) Morton. When it gets there (to overtime and a shootout) it’s anyone’s game.”
Junior forward Jason Foltz had a couple near misses on the night around the cage, including one in the final 1:45 of regulation when his putback from deep in the slot was saved at the lower left post by a diving Pavlisin (43 saves), and regulation time expired with the teams still tied at 2.
That set the stage for a 5-minute, sudden-death overtime period with the teams skating in 3-on-3. In back-and-forth action, the Flames generated some quality chances, with Kalandyk’s steal from behind along the boards a defensive highlight before Virostek saved two shots in the final five seconds, sending the showdown into a shootout. Kalandyk was denied on his first chance before UNLV leading scorer Cole Wyatt answered with a stealthy maneuver in front and tucked a forehand inside the right post. Freshman defenseman Laz Kaebel evened the score with a slow approach before drawing Pavlisin out of the cage and firing a shot from the right crease inside the right post, which Pavlisin had dislodged from its mooring.
However, after Virostek rejected the Rebels’ next two shots, Johnson outmaneuvered him from left to right and netted the game-winner from near the right post.
“We wanted that game so bad,” Schwenke said. “We played that game for (Fricks) and it sucks that we lost, but I was really proud of everyone out there. We had a purpose to play. Obviously, you play your hardest every game, but now we had a real reason to give it our all and play for God.”
He said that carries over to Saturday’s rematch, the season’s third and final “Midnight Mayhem” matchup, with the puck dropping at 11:59 p.m.
“It’ll be fun and it will be a packed crowd, but the boys are going to have to dig deep to get ready for that one because Josh is still going to be on our minds,” Schwenke said. “He’s a key part of the team, but we’ve got a great team of guys in that locker room, so I’m not worried about that at all. The rink’s going to be sold out an hour before, so we’re not worried about energy. That won’t be a problem. We’ll be ready to go.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media