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    February 16, 2023 Lynchburg, Va. RSS |

    This weekend’s series between Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team and Ohio University at the LaHaye Ice Center will offer a strange mix of country music, cowboy hats, and corndogs on Friday’s first Country Night before fast forwarding a few lightyears to Stormtroopers and lightsabers on Saturday for the fourth Star Wars Night.

    The sixth-ranked Flames, who snapped their five-game skid to start the new year with a 4-3 shootout victory over No. 2 Adrian College their last time out on Feb. 4, have taken advantage of an off week to rest and recover before challenging the Nos. 4 and 1 teams in the nation over the final two weekends of the regular-season.

    “We battled well that whole game and came together as a team to get that shootout win,” Liberty junior forward Jacob Kalandyk said, noting that splitting home and away series with the Bulldogs shows the Flames they can beat any team in the nation. “We’re just excited to get back after having last weekend off, just to continue building and be ready for nationals. After having time to rest and recover, we’re ready to get back to work.”

    Flames forwards Kris Bladen (from left), Kam Ottenbreit, and DJ Schwenke model the Stormtrooper uniforms Liberty will sport for Saturday’s Star Wars night at the LaHaye Ice Center. (Photo by Andy Barrios)

    After dressing as Rebel Alliance fighter pilots the first year in 2018 and in Darth Vader uniforms in 2020, the Flames wore C3PO uniforms for last season’s Star Wars weekend. This time, they will go as Stormtroopers in Saturday night’s rematch with the Bobcats, who swept the spring semester-opening series at Bird Arena on Jan. 13-14 in Athens, Ohio, by 7-0 and 5-2 final scores.

    “We definitely have a bad taste in our mouth still, so we will be ready to play for sure,” Kalandyk said. “I know a lot of the guys are eager to play these guys this weekend, so we just want to come out firing. They definitely rebuilt well in the offseason and they’re a completely different team with a lot of top guys there, but we’ll be ready for them for sure and we are more than capable of beating them.”

    The series, and next weekend’s season-ending showdown with No. 1 Minot State, will serve as previews of what the Flames can expect when they get to the ACHA DI National Championships, set for March 16-21 in Marlborough, Mass.

    “Ohio’s going to be a huge series this weekend and Minot next weekend is also going to be a huge test for us, right before nationals,” Kalandyk said. “It’s definitely huge for us to really get some momentum going and keep the ball rolling into nationals.”

    He said the Flames have rallied around senior forward Josh Fricks, who fractured the C-4 and C-5 vertebrae in his lower neck on a check against the boards in the first game of last month’s home series against UNLV.

    “He’s doing a lot better,” Kalandyk said. “He’s walking and doing exercises now so he’s doing well. He’s made a huge recovery in such a short amount of time so it’s looking good for him. It’s definitely a huge thing for us to play for him. I know he’d have wanted to finish out his senior season, but unfortunately it was cut short. We all love Josh and we want to play for him, and we want to win for him.”

    Wrapping up the regular season in front of their home fans at the LIC is another powerful incentive.

    “Having the home-ice advantage is huge, and it’s definitely going to be fun to play in front of that huge crowd,” Kalandyk said. “Going to Ohio, their rink is really hard to play in. They definitely have a home-ice advantage there, but they’re going to have some trouble coming in here and playing their top game.”

    Scouting Preview Games 26-27: No. 4 Ohio (25-5-1) at No. 6 Liberty (14-10-1), Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the LaHaye Ice Center. Both games will be streamed live on ESPN+. Listen to episode No. 55 of the Rock the Rink podcast previewing this weekend’s series.

    All-time series: Ohio reclaimed an 18-17 edge with the home sweep to start the semester. Before that, the Flames had won 14 of the previous 16 matchups.

    Nate Albers skates against the Bobcats beside fellow Flames forward Matt Bartel in front of the Liberty bench in the first series at Bird Arena in Athens, Ohio.

    Liberty Scouting Report: To be successful, the Flames must focus on the fundamentals and execute their systems, including on special teams. This season, they have converted 29.5 percent of their power-play chances while killing 76.1 percent of their penalties.

    “Overall, we need more hard work, and to get dirty,” Kalandyk said. “Not every goal is going to be a pretty goal, it’s just about working hard. Our power play needs to step up a little bit here. We’ve been working on our systems a lot, so we just want to play our fundamental game. Really, it all comes down to little things. We have plenty of talent on the team, it just comes down to those little details.”

    Kalandyk is the Flames’ leading scorer with 14 goals and 13 assists, followed closely by fellow junior forward Jason Foltz (13G, 12A) and senior forward Jackson Vercellono (10G, 15A).

    Liberty has four goalies to call upon, with Hunter Virostek (10-6-1, 2.97 goals-against average, 92.0 save percentage) earning the lion’s share of playing time between the pipes (989 minutes), complemented by fellow senior Cédric Le Sieur (4-1, 1.85 GAA, 93.7 SP, 1 shutout in 324 minutes of play).

    Ohio Scouting Report: The Bobcats staged the upset of the ACHA DI National Championships last season, knocking off No. 2 Minot State in the opening round as the No. 15 seed before falling to No. 3-seeded Adrian in the second round. They had dropped 10 of their final 11 games in the regular season, including being swept by the Flames, 4-1 and 4-3 in a shootout, on Feb. 11-12 in Athens, Ohio. This season, Ohio dealt top-ranked Minot State its only loss to date on Feb. 3.

    The Bobcats have outscored opponents by a 174-62 margin and converted 35.4 percent of their power-play opportunities while killing off 84.7 percent of their penalties.

    Ohio’s offense is fueled by forward Luc Reeve, the ACHA’s leading scorer with 32 goals and 40 assists. He has netted 13 goals on the power play, four game-winners, and three shorthanded scores. Reeve is complemented by fellow forward Laker Aldridge (24G, 27A) and defenseman Sam Turner (6G, 32A).

    In net, the Bobcats have primarily platooned Justin Damon (12-2-1, 2.20 GAA, 90.1 SP, 1 SO) and Max Karlenzig (9-3, 2.08 GAA, 90.6 SP, 3 SO), with stellar backup keeping from Garrett Alderman (4-0, 0.75 GAA, 95.2 SP, 2 SO).

    Coaches: Kirk 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 512-209-30. Lionel Mauron, a former ECHL player originally from Switzerland, is in his second season as head coach for the Bobcats and has posted a 41-24-4 record.

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer