Newark, Del. — Down 2-0 with eight minutes left in the second period, the Penn State Ice Lions responded with four unanswered goals — including a natural hat trick from winger Jake O’Donnell — to defeat the Liberty Flames, 4-2, in the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey Conference championship game on Sunday afternoon (Feb. 17) at Fred Rust Arena.
After both teams played evenly through a scoreless but back-and-forth first 10 minutes, the Lions started to generate momentum and control the puck in the Liberty zone, but were stymied by Flames goalie Adam Partridge and a stay-at-home defence through an 11-shot first period.
“We were getting a lot of shots, but Liberty was blocking a lot,” said Penn State coach Cory Myers.
Penn State had an opportunity to strike early in the second period when Liberty defenceman Ryley Richardson was assessed a boarding minor, but ineffective puck movement in the attacking zone and constant traffic in front of the Liberty net kept the Lions scoreless through their first power play. The Flames built on their successful penalty kill and commanded the Penn State slot at 3:27, when Darren Carter crashed the net to tip a Charlie Wilkie shot past Lions goalie Will Holtforster for his third goal of the playoffs. Winger Blake Flanders increased the Flames’ lead to 2-0 with a snipe from the top of the right circle set up by a tape-to-tape feed from Carter at 11:07, but the Lions were quick to regroup.
Only 1:33 later, Adam Alavi won a defensive-zone face-off, advanced the puck to a fast-breaking Bobby Freiling, and then crashed the net himself to pot the rebound of Freiling’s close-range wrist shot and open the floodgates for the resurgent Lions. O’Donnell tied the game at 2-2 with 4:26 left in the second period, tipping the puck past Partridge amid a goal-mouth scrum.
Just as Penn State’s special teams proved the deciding factor in their North Division Final win over Rider on Saturday (Feb. 16), their power-pay unit earned the championship-clinching goal midway through the third period. With Liberty blueliner Kyle Martin out for holding at 8:53, the Lions quickly set up shop in the Flames’ zone. O’Donnell, perched at the left dot and set up by a cross-ice pass from two-way defenceman Mike Lassik, fired a wrist shot past Partridge 13 seconds into the man advantage to lift the Lions to a 3-2 lead.
Still down one with just over a minute to go, Liberty pulled Partridge in favour of an extra attacker, but found themselves matched by an aggressive Penn State defence. After icing the puck once, the Lions cleared a second time in the final 30 seconds. Nico Gricco chased the puck into the Liberty zone to negate icing, setting up O’Donnell’s empty-net goal with 12 seconds left to seal victory.
Holtforster stopped 18 of 20 shots faced while Partridge stopped 29 of 32 in defeat.
After the game, Myers was quick to credit the key players who propelled the Lions to their second consecutive MACH championship, following their overtime win against the Flames in 2018.
“O’Donnell stepped up this whole year. Lassik has been one of our top defensive guys this year, and he’s always on his game, and Will [Holtforster] has been our number one goalie all year. It’s what we needed from him, and he played one of his top games.”
Penn State advances directly to the American Collegiate Hockey Association National Tournament, held in Dallas at the end of March, while Liberty continues their postseason run at the ACHA Southeast Regional Tournament, contested March 1-3 in Lynchburg, Va.
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