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    October 28, 2022 Lynchburg, Va. RSS |

    The last time Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team met Robert Morris (Pa.) University, back in September 2012, the Flames swept the series at the LaHaye Ice Center to extend their season-opening winning streak — as well as their winning streak against the Colonials — to eight games.

    They will look to stretch their run of success against Robert Morris to 10 games this weekend, but like Liberty, which remained at No. 5 in this week’s ACHA DI rankings, this RMU squad is more formidable than it was 10 years ago. The Colonials were ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time in program history — ahead of the then-No. 3 Flames — early in the 2020-21 season, when only 27 of 72 teams in the league had played games.

    They are now regular contenders for the College Hockey Mid-America (CHMA) conference crown, which they won last year to advance to the ACHA DI National Championships in St. Louis. Though RMU is currently ranked just outside of the top 25, Flames Head Coach Kirk Handy wouldn’t be surprised to see them at nationals from March 16-21 near Boston.

    “Robert Morris is in the same conference as West Virginia and they are typically the favorite team out of that conference every year, a team that is usually nationals-bound every year,” he said, noting that the tournament champion receives an autobid. “They’re a team we could see at the end of the year. We’re going to play our own game.”

    Liberty’s strength of schedule the past two series has been considerably stronger than RMU’s in recent weeks. While the Colonials are coming off a 2-1 overtime loss to the Mountaineers in Morgantown, W.Va., the Flames lost three of four games on the road — both at now-No. 1 Minot State and the last of two at No. 3 Adrian College, the 2020-21 national champion.

    Handy said a week off following those back-to-back road trips has helped, though the Flames are not fully recovered as they will be without injured defenseman Tom Nagle, a senior, and sophomore Alekdsandr Charin.

    “We definitely have some good energy out there,” he said of practices this week. “It will be great to have the home crowd back with us again and we are looking forward to it. Those two back-to back road trips taught us a lot about who we are as a team. They were tough series, both physically and mentally draining, and I love it because it propels us to such a great spot for not only the rest of the semester, but the rest of the year. We can take areas of improvement from those weekends and implement (changes) that will make us better.”

    This will be the first of three home series for the Flames before they fly to No. 2 UNLV for a three-game trip from Nov. 17-19, opening the weekend against NCAA Division I University of Alaska-Anchorage before facing the Rebels — who eliminated them from the ACHA DI National Championship quarterfinals last season — twice. But Handy is not looking too far ahead and has his sights set on the here and now, battling the Colonials.

    “The key is to focus on where we are as a team now and what we need to improve on this weekend,” Handy said. “Our PK (penalty kill) and power play were excellent (at Adrian). We realize we need to be better and to score more goals 5-on-5 and that has been a focus of ours in practices this week.”

    Scouting Preview for Games 9-10: Robert Morris (Pa.) University (6-2-1) at No. 5 Liberty (5-3), Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the LaHaye Ice Center. Both games will be streamed live on ESPN+. For Saturday’s rematch, kids wearing Halloween costumes will receive coupons for concessions and are invited to go trick-or-treating between periods in the 10 suites around the concourse.

    All-Time Series: Liberty leads 12-2 and has won the last eight meetings with the Colonials, with former Flames forward Rick Turner netting hat tricks in each of the last four of those games in 2011 and 2012.

    Liberty Scouting Report: In an effort to generate more offense at full strength, the Flames’ front lines will look quite different than the last time they played at the LIC, for the Oct. 2 “Midnight” matchup against IUP.

    “We switched the lines around and really feel that will give us a shot in the arm as we go on through this next stretch at home,” Handy said, noting that the combinations have found instant chemistry and should be firing on all cylinders this weekend.

    He has placed Brett Gammer with fellow senior forwards Matt Bartel and Josh Fricks; leading scorer Jacob Kalandyk (5 goals, 5 assists) with fellow junior forwards Jason Foltz (last season’s leading scorer, who currently ranks third with 6G, 2A) and Kam Ottenbreit (3G, 4A); Jackson Vercellono (3G, 7A) with fellow senior forward Truett Olson and junior DJ Schwenke (5G, 3A); and he has a combination of four players ready to rotate in on the fourth line, juniors Kris Bladen and Nate Albers, freshman Sam Feamster, and sophomore Joe Clark.

    “Nate (Albers) has been a consistent player for us this year,” Handy said. “We know what we’re going to get out of Nate every night. He is high-energy, a guy who works hard every practice, works hard in the game, a guy that will do anything for our team. We used him on the PK up at Adrian and he was real effective for us. He plays his role really well. He knows what his strengths are and plays up to those.”

    Ottenbreit missed one game and Gammer both games of the Adrian series to attend funerals for family members but have returned to the team recharged and ready to play.

    “Those guys have picked up where they left off,” Handy said. “They are two important players on our team, who can play in different situations and who can play every night. They are two of our more dependable forwards, older guys who understand game management and season management. They see the big picture and understand what it takes to win, ultimately, at the end of the year. It is important that we have that leadership in our lineup.”

    Defensively, without Nagle and Charin, the Flames will lean on their three remaining pairings of senior head captain Colin Baird and freshman Laz Kaebel, sophomore Colten Kovich and freshman Grant Morton, who missed the Adrian series due to injury, and sophomores Nate Cox and Luke Heimann.

    Between the pipes, Hunter Virostek (5-2, 2.98 goals-against average, 91.6 save percentage) has received the majority of minutes with fellow senior Cédric Le Sieur (0-0, 1.50 GAA, 81.8 SP) and freshman Scott Bird available as needed.

    Robert Morris Scouting Report: Unlike Liberty, which doesn’t have a single native of Virginia on its 24-man roster, 21 out of 27 players that make up RMU’s DI team are from Pennsylvania. The Colonials feature three double-digit scorers in forwards Justin Adamski (12G, 9A), Roman Kraemer (8G, 10A), and Giovanni Palumbo (1G, 13A). Adamski has scored three of his goals shorthanded and he and Kraemer each have netted two game-winners. In goal, Parker Rutherford (5-0, 1.17 GAA, 96.6 SP, 1SO) has been the most efficient with backup from Kevin Mackey (1-2-1, 3.99 GAA, 89.3 SP).

    Coaches: Handy is in his 23rd season at the helm for the Flames, having guided them to six consecutive ACHA DI National Championships bids and posted a career record of 503-202-29. In his role as RMU’s head coach, Dr. Mike Joseph, also serves as the Colonials’ general manager.

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer