No. 5 Flames to face No. 12 Pittsburgh in ACHA DI National Championships opener
Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team moved back up to No. 5 in the final regular-season national rankings released on Wednesday and will face No. 12 Pittsburgh in its first game of the ACHA DI National Championships in Marlborough, Mass., in a second-round showdown set for Saturday, March 18, at 10:15 a.m. in the New England Sports Center.
The Liberty-Pittsburgh winner will challenge the winner of the March 17 second-round matchup between No. 4 UNLV and the winner of a March 16 clash between No. 13 Grand Valley State and No. 20 Buffalo in Sunday’s quarterfinals. The complete tournament pairings are available online, with the semifinals set for Monday, March 20, and the championship game on Tuesday, March 21, at 8 p.m.
“We are excited that the bracket is out and excited to get going,” said Flames Head Coach Kirk Handy, who guided his team to its seventh consecutive national tournament. “I like our draw and think it’s very fair. It accurately portrays who we played this year.”
Pitt (20-7-3) earned its fourth bid to nationals by clinching the Eastern States Collegiate Hockey League (ESCHL) regular-season championship. The Flames (16-12-2) competed in the ESCHL up until 2021-22, the season the Panthers joined the conference.
Liberty, one of two independent programs in the national tournament field along with No. 1 Minot State, defeated each of the top four seeds this season — winning two out of four games against UNLV and No. 3 Adrian and splitting home series with No. 2 Ohio and the top-ranked Beavers over the past two weeks at the LaHaye Ice Center.
“Especially the last four weekends, when we faced UNLV, Adrian, Ohio, and Minot State, we’ve grown as a team over the last month and I like where we are at going into the tournament,” Handy said. “The teams we are going to have to beat at nationals are the same teams that we’ve been playing the last month.”
He said this season’s team, which includes eight seniors who were recognized before Saturday’s regular-season-ending rematch with Minot, has overcome adversity and grown and matured by testing its mettle against perhaps the ACHA’s toughest schedule.
“What you do is you take all the lessons that you’ve learned along the journey and you apply them to the new season we’re in,” Handy said. “Our guys have worked hard this year. We’ve grown as a team and we’re super excited about the next part of the journey.”
Liberty hasn’t faced the Panthers in more than a decade but recently scheduled to play them next season.
“It’s going to be a great game and we are looking forward to it,” Handy said, noting that both teams feature quality goalies. “Our goaltending has been great for us and (senior) Hunter (Virostek) has been very solid the last few weekends.”
He is hoping to have a full complement of players available, other than senior forward Josh Fricks, who is still recovering from fracturing his C-4 and C-5 vertebrae during the Jan. 20 shootout loss to UNLV at the LIC.
“I feel like by national tournament time, we’ll have all of our guys healthy again,” Handy said. “We were missing (junior forward Kris) Bladen (against Minot), but had a bunch of other guys really banged up.”
In practices leading up to nationals, the Flames will focus on taking their collective games to the next level.
“We’re going to be going pretty consistently over the next couple of weeks, trying to get our lines clicking and continuing to work on our special teams,” Handy said.
He is excited about the prospect of playing in the same site as Liberty’s DI women’s team, which will be going for its fifth consecutive national championship crown, and its DII men’s team.
“It will be a fun environment,” Handy said. “We are all staying at the same hotel and we’re looking forward to it. I really like this team. Our group battles hard, our group competes, they have shown that they want to get better and continue to push to be the best they can be. It is a great group on and off the ice and I’m excited to take this next challenge with our team. This group is ready for it.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer