A series filled with goals, big hits and trash talk, UNLV skated away with a series split and a bit of punctuation in the form of a brawl against Liberty University.
Game One, Jan. 28
The Skatin’ Rebels entered Friday night’s contest on the longest winning streak in the country, however their winning ways ended as they lost 7-4 against the Liberty Flames.
Goaltender Vince Benedetto got his third straight start for the Rebels coming off of his series sweep of Arizona last week.
The puck was dropped and the Rebels got straight to playing their fast brand of hockey.
Liberty goaltender Hunter Virostek tried to sling the puck around the boards, but Brendan Manning intercepted the pass and fed the puck to the goal where Paxton Malone tipped it home to put UNLV up 1-0 early.
The Flames would storm back to score three straight goals in a flurry of offense.
Nick Flanders took a roughing call and sent UNLV to the penalty kill, and Liberty made them pay.
Jason Foltz tied the game for Liberty with a power-play marker on the Flanders call, followed by Kam Ottenbreit giving the Flames the lead just 52 seconds later.
UNLV continued to have penalty trouble in the first period, with Bradley Golant getting two minutes for cross-checking.
Matthew Bartel then scored on the ensuing power-play with 1:15 remaining in the opening period, putting Liberty up 3-1 heading into the first intermission.
The Flames hit the ice for the second period and almost immediately went shorthanded after Jacob Kalandyk took a 2 minute interference penalty.
The Rebels failed to convert on the power-play and Ottenbreit picked up his second goal of the game shorthanded to give the Flames a three goal lead.
Ezekiel Estrada responded for UNLV with a gritty rebound goal to end the scoring onslaught from the Flames.
The Rebels then got a little scare following a collision at the goal sending Benedetto crashing into the net and grazing the post with his head, resulting in the UNLV goaltender to appear a bit shaken up.
Despite the hard hit, Benedetto remained between the poles for the remainder of the game.
Trips to the penalty box continued to haunt UNLV, seeing a slew of Rebels heading to the box.
Michael Boutoussov got hit high by Luke Heimann in the corner, and Boutoussov expressed his displeasure and both players got hit with two minutes for roughing.
Boutoussov got grabbed from behind by Nate Albers, and he speared the Flames player and got a five minute major and a game misconduct for spearing.
The penalties evened out to a three minute major power-play for the Flames, where Bartel potted his second goal of the game to give Liberty a 5-2 lead to take into the third.
The Flames also took a penalty kill into the final frame after Nate Albers took an interference minor with 32 seconds left in the period.
Alec Johnson opened the scoring for UNLV only 27 seconds into the second period on the power-play after shooting a one-timer to the back of the net.
Estrada netted his second goal of the game a handful of minutes later to make the game 5-4.
Down by one goal, UNLV pressed the Flames to tie the game, but Ottenbreit would give Liberty an insurance goal off of a Hunter Muzzillo turnover.
Ottenbreit would be followed up late in the game by a backhander from Foltz that found its way over Benedetto’s shoulder, putting Liberty up 7-4.
The Rebels' winning ways ended there.
“16 games in a row for the program is huge. We can’t win them all,” Alec Johnson said, “it was a wake-up call to lose.”
Game 2, Jan. 29
The Rebels and Flames faced off again for Liberty’s own Midnight Madness to round off the series in front of an electric crowd, with UNLV taking the game 3-1.
“It’s tough to win on the road, especially with a crowd like that against a top ranked opponent,” head coach Anthony Vignieri-Greener said. “Coming away with a split here on the road against the No. 3 team is a win.”
Zach Wickson got the start for UNLV, his first game back since Jan 14.
The Rebels looked better off the drop of the puck, playing much tighter and faster than the previous night.
Kalandyk would stop any momentum the Rebels would have, as he redirected a shot past Wickson on the power-play to put Liberty up 1-0 midway through the period.
The Flames took their lead to the intermission, and opened the second period on a long power-play following Alec Johnson receiving a five-minute major and Muzzillo with a 10-minute misconduct to put UNLV down two men.
Liberty found no success on the power-play, then Kalandyk gave the Rebels a power-play chance of their own.
Alec Johnson returned to the ice on the power-play unit, and wasted no time. He fired a shot past goaltender Virostek to tie the game.
Daniel Schewnke headed to the box for Liberty and put UNLV on a critical power-play.
Alec Johnson then scored once again to give the Rebels their first lead of the weekend.
The two teams continued to come to blows throughout the third period, trading scoring chances and big hits.
Two critical moments for UNLV would happen late in the period.
Bradley Golant let a shot go in the low slot and it seemed to have gone in, and as the Rebels celebrated a replay revealed the puck hit the crossbar and then the post and out of the net.
A few minutes later, Burke would take a penalty, putting the Rebels on the penalty-kill late against a team with a potent power-play.
Malone would get in on a break and get taken down, resulting in a crucial penalty shot. His shot got blocked, and the Flames had a bout of momentum for one last push.
Liberty pulled their goalie for an extra attacker with 2:30 left in the game, and got a handful of scoring chances, but Wickson stood tall to allow Manning to ice the game with an empty net goal with 37 seconds left.
But the game wasn't done there.
Fists, equipment, and a jersey flew in the final seconds.
A scrum in front of Wickson sparked a brawl. Muzzillo and Max Johnson grabbed onto Zak Albers in the corner, while Wickson was in the middle of it all, mouthing off to both Albers.
Nate Albers was tied up with an official and was shoved away by Wickson. Golant stepped in for his goaltender and traded blows in the corner with the ref clutching both players.
Max Johnson paired off with Zak Albers and both dropped the gloves after Muzzillo was pulled off, and they went toe-to-toe.
Zak Albers reached over Max Johnson’s arm to rip his helmet off, and started throwing punches.
Max chucked punches back, and once he got his bearings in the scrap, he landed solid rights before the fight was broken up.
Golant’s jersey ended up coming off in his scrap, and it was tossed into the crowd. All the while, Wickson was in the thick of things, chirping Flames players and mocking the Liberty crowd.
The officials decided to end the game with six seconds left, and the Skatin’ Rebels emphatically put themselves back in the win column.
“When this group all buys in,” Greener said. “We can win anywhere we play.”
The Rebels took the season series against Liberty 2-1, having beat the Flames in November during the Chicago Classic.
The Skatin’ Rebels have an off week this coming weekend before hitting the road one more time this season to round off their series season against the Arizona State Sun Devils.
“It feels great, especially to beat a team ranked one above you,” Alec Johnson said. “We'll probably see them at [Nationals].”