From Liberty Club Sports
By Ted Allen
Fresh off Thanksgiving break, and two weeks removed from a resounding sweep of then-No. 2 UNLV on its home ice, Liberty University’s now-No. 2-ranked ACHA Division I men’s hockey team heads into this weekend’s top-10 showdown with Maryville (Mo.) University with plenty of Christmas spirit.
“It’s huge, the best time of the year,” said Flames senior goalie Hunter Virostek, who saved 53 out of 57 shots in the 6-2, 5-2 sweep of the Rebels, Nov. 18-19 in Las Vegas.
He and his teammates are fully focused on finishing the fall semester schedule well before final exams begin next week.
“For finals, everybody gets their work done ahead of time so we can focus on the games and what needs to be done (on the ice),” Virostek said. “It will be a tough weekend. We’ve got the midnight game on Friday night, and then a quick turnaround for a 7 p.m. game (on Saturday). Usually, it’s the other way around, but we’ll get ‘er done.”
Liberty bumped up two spots from No. 4 to No. 2 in last week’s ACHA DI rankings after that coup at UNLV, which won three of four meetings between the two squads last season, extinguishing the Flames in the ACHA DI National Championship quarterfinals in St. Louis.
“Getting that No. 2 spot after that last weekend, that’s huge,” Virostek said. “That’s good for the program and we’ve just got to make sure that we keep taking it to teams. Honestly, you just go out there and work as hard as you can and try to win every game. We can’t be giving any teams any wins. We’ve just got to go hard.”
Aside from a 9-1 setback to NCAA Division I Alaska Anchorage in the first games played at UNLV on Nov. 17, the Flames have now stretched their ACHA winning streak to seven games, dating back to a 4-1 upset loss to then-No. 25 Robert Morris (Pa.) on Oct. 28 at the LIC.
“After the Alaska game, it kind of humbled us in a way and showed us what we needed to work on and how to really like come together as a team,” Virostek said. “Coming into the UNLV games, we really just played it simple and played it hard and just stuck to our game.”
Head Coach Kirk Handy said setting the tone and tempo for the games early against the Rebels was the key to Liberty’s breakthrough victories.
“Our guys were ready … and I really liked our starts,” he said. “I thought we came out of the gate in both games ready to play, attacking and not sitting back. That was a huge part of our success. Our players had an unbelievable desire to achieve at a high level and stayed focused on it for 60 minutes. We saw something that we haven’t seen before, and that was a desire to compete for 60 minutes and to keep the game simple and to stay unified as a team.”
The Flames will seek to build on that chemistry and cohesion before the winter break, and realize they can’t afford to overlook the Saints, who have risen rapidly as a program since moving up from the ACHA DII level in 2018-19 and could very well rain on Liberty’s Christmas parade.
“They’re coming up,” Virostek said. “They’re not a team to look past at all. With us being the No. 2 team, they’ll come with their A game and fight, so we can’t step down at all. We’ve got to take care of business, keep it simple as a team, and work hard.”
Scouting Preview Games 18-19: No. 10 Maryville (12-4) at No. 2 Liberty (12-5) Friday at 11:59 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the LaHaye Ice Center. Both games will be streamed live on ESPN+.
All-time series: Liberty leads 1-0, winning in the first round of the 2021 National Championships, 9-0, on Maryville’s home ice. Last season, before the National Championships in St. Louis, the Flames recorded a 4-1 win in a shortened exhibition game.
Liberty Scouting Report: The Flames, who had 10 different players score their 11 goals against UNLV, feature 10 players with 10 points or more on the season, led by junior forward Jacob Kalandyk (13 goals, 10 assists). He is followed closely by senior forwards Jackson Vercellono (7G, 14A) and Josh Fricks (5G, 16A) as well as junior forward Jason Foltz (11G, 9A) and freshman defenseman Laz Kaebel (6G, 13A), who rounds out the top five.
Defensively, Liberty has had to rotate a number of lesser-experienced players into its pairings, with injuries to senior head captain Colin Baird and freshman Grant Morton, among others, and they have filled the gaps admirably.
“All those DII guys coming up, they’ve been playing awesome,” Virostek said of sophomore Rece Poulin, graduate Alex Norwinski, and freshman Nathan Mulder, as well as sophomore forward Josh Harrell. “It’s basically like they’re on our team.”
In goal, Virostek (9-4, 2.74 goals-against average, 92.3 save percentage) has played the majority of minutes with exceptional backup from fellow senior Cédric LeSieur (3-0, 1.91 goals-against average, 92.4 save percentage).
Maryville Scouting Report: The Saints are defending Midwest College Hockey (MCH) regular-season and tournament champions, winning their first national tournament game last season after being ousted by the Flames in the first round in 2021. Offensively, they are paced by forward T.J. Prexler (9G, 11A) and defenseman Timon Prexler (5G. 9A), brothers from Coquitlam, British Columbia, who both played Junior hockey for the WSHL’s Bellingham Blazers. Forwards Luke MacLeod and Lukas Adams are tied for third with 6 goals and 7 assists apiece. T.J. Prexler and Adams both have four power-play goals and three game-winners, with Adams netting two of those during shootouts.
Between the pipes, Maryville has platooned Edward Coffey (6-1, 1.61 GAA, 92.9 SP, 4 shutouts) and Johnny Massara (6-2, 2.26 GAA, 90.5 SP, 1SO). Coffey’s last shutout came Nov. 18 at Ohio before Massara took the loss in the Nov. 19 rematch, as the Saints split both series with the Bobcats as well as with defending ACHA DI national champion Central Oklahoma.
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 510-204-29. John Hogan is the founding head coach for the Saints after starting the program at the DII level in 2018-19 and moving up to DI for the past three seasons, for a combined 73-57-5 mark. He also serves as Director of Hockey, overseeing the day-to-day operations for Maryville’s five programs (DI, DII, DII men; DI, DII women) as Handy does for Liberty as Club Sports Athletic Director.
(Originally published at https://www.liberty.edu/club-sports/news/di-flames-prepared-for-pre-christmas-mayhem-in-showdown-with-saints/)