Another week, another Penn State opponent that's something of an unknown. This time, the ironically-nicknamed No. 15 Liberty University Flames roll into the Ice Pavilion for a rare Thursday-Friday set tonight and tomorrow. Depending on your outlook, LU is either a team not playing up to their usual standards that a redemption-driven Icers team should bounce, or a team that has given PSU fits in the past and is coming together at the right time. But hey, that's why the games are so much fun.
I still think of Liberty primarily as the team that ended the Icers' run of 10 consecutive ACHA championship game appearances with a 4-1 win over Penn State in the second round of the 2008 tournament in Rochester, NY. And while the Liberty series lacks the rich history of the one with our previous opponent, it's proven to be just as much of a struggle. It began with a tougher-than-expected 2-1 win at the 2007 ACHA championship tournament, and also includes four regular season games. The Icers have a 3-2-1 record in the series, although the Flames see it more as 3-3-0, thanks to one of Liberty's wins coming in overtime.
After a slow 3-3-1 start to this season, LU has come on of late, sweeping Oakland two weeks ago (something Ohio failed to do) and throttling two lower-division teams (UMBC and Kennesaw State) last weekend. The feeling from the Liberty side of things is that the Oakland series turned around their season:
In coach [Kirk] Handy’s opinion this game stood out more than others.Did it turn around their season? Given that tonight represents their first D1 game since Oakland, I suppose we're about to find out.
“I think it was a turning point for us this season,” Handy said. “The effort hadn’t been there in past games, but tonight it was and the guys were all working as a unit.”
Coach Handy isn’t the only one that has noticed the significant changes the team is making as a whole.
“We played as a team and we’re really coming together now,” forward Jonathan Chung said.
The Flames are led up front by Brent Boschman (11 goals, 14 assists), the aforementioned Chung (5 goals, 15 assists) and Adam Docksteader (12 goals, 7 assists), the team's top three scorers. Quality scoring depth exists throughout the top two lines, with seven forwards averaging one point per game or better. That's Icers-quality balance, and Liberty's forwards are known for being a physical group as well.
One quote in that last link was mildly discouraging, from the Icers' Paul Daley:
“In this game we’re going to be forced to play physical. We won’t have a choice, that’s just the way they are. We’ll try to outmatch them, be more physical than they are and hopefully we’ll just give them a taste of their own medicine.”Whatever happened to dictating the game with your own style? I think any brutally honest assessment of the last four games would reach the conclusion that Penn State let the opponents' style win out too often. Ohio slowed things down and effectively neutralized the Icers attack. Both Ohio and UCO had the generally disciplined PSU squad playing shorthanded far too often. To me, a successful pair of games will involve the Flames trying to give Penn State a taste of its own medicine, not the other way around.
Incidentally, if the first link in the post didn't make it obvious enough, Liberty was founded by Jerry Falwell, and claims to be the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world. Leading scorer Boschman's favorite Bible verse is Genesis 1:1 (yes, they're listed on the team website), so I'm going to make the assumption that he's not one for thick books and just answered with the first one he saw.
Towering (6'4") goalie Blair Bennett gets the majority of the minutes between the pipes, and while his goals against average is a shaky 3.99, he also faces a ton of shots - roughly 42 per 60 minutes. This is almost certainly due in part to a thin defense corps (and possibly some forwards who don't like that backchecking doesn't show up in a box score, but that's purely speculation on my part). Senior Mike Morrison and junior Mackenzie Bauman are solid as a top defense pairing, but inexperience and a general lack of warm bodies (Liberty's website only lists five defensemen on the roster) make things a little sketchy after that.
Like I said at the top, it's tough to get a good read on these games. Penn State playing up to capabilities should be able to use depth to take advantage of Liberty's spotty defense and find enough defense of their own to earn a sweep, but then again, have we seen the Icers at their best all season? On the Flames side of things, do we see the team they say they now are, or the one that was upset by Niagara?
Quality photography can sometimes be hard find in the yellow-orange confines of the Ice Pavilion, but View From the Booth comes to the rescue, sharing some great work from a couple of goalie dads.
In the Collegian pre-series piece, Tim O'Brien explains why practice was different this week.