Air Force Shot Down Late Again
by Mike Machnik/CHN Senior Editor
WORCESTER, Mass. For the second straight year, Air Force proved it belonged with the big boys in the NCAA Division I tournament.
But for the second straight year, near elation turned to disappointment as the heavy underdog Falcons saw a third-period lead turn into a heartbreaking defeat. No. 1 seed Miami, the second-ranked team in the tournament, got an overtime goal from Justin Mercier to edge bottom-seeded Air Force, 3-2.
"It's a pretty big disappointment," said senior Eric Ehn, who returned to the lineup for the first time in over two months.
"I feel like we let some opportunities slip away. We played as good as we can play, gave ourselves a chance to win. But you can't hang your head about the way you played, especially when you take the second-ranked team in the country to overtime."
(Also see: Ehn's Return)
Last year, Air Force led Minnesota 3-1 midway through the third period, before a Falcon penalty and Gopher power-play goal started things in the opposite direction. Minnesota scored three goals in less than four minutes to send Cinderella home empty-handed.
Again this year, a late penalty haunted the underdogs, leading 2-1 late. This time, it was a too many men call with 7:50 left. Miami cashed in with rookie Carter Camper's man advantage goal to tie the game at 2-2 and force the extra session.
It was the key penalty call in a game where only six were made all night, and was one of those whistles that could have been called or could have been let go.
"Our player jumped off the bench early," said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. "You have to be careful in those situations because if you do things like that — even though he wasn't involved in the play, he jumped off the bench early — then you give the linesman an opportunity to get involved in the game. We shouldn't have done that."
So for the second straight year, Air Force impressed a lot of people, came oh-so-close, but goes home wondering what might have been.
"It seems like every year, we get a little closer," said goaltender Andrew Volkening — himself a huge reason the Falcons nearly won with 30 saves, many of them jaw-dropping. I think we proved some things, to people outside this locker room, that we're a pretty decent team to reckon with. But to ourselves — that's something that we already knew.
"So there isn't any room for moral victories anymore. Last year, everything happened so fast. I don't know if we knew what to think. But this year was different. We'd been here before. We know what it's like. It takes so much to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Every aspect of your game has to be rolling — offense, defense, goaltending, and especially the little details.
"Who knows if we'll ever get another shot at it."
Said Serratore, "Being here two years in a row really validated us. Once is luck. Twice is skill. We proved we're not a one-hit wonder, and we're not a one-man band. This team played pretty darn good without Eric Ehn.
"Personally — it's two missed opportunities, when you get that close. I'll take these games to my grave. That's the truth. Minnesota gets here every year. Michigan gets here every year. Miami's going to get here every year. We're not going to get here every year. And have so many chances. When you have an opportunity like we had last year, and an opportunity like we had this year, you can say, 'I'm just happy to be here.' But that's not the case.
"I will take these two to my grave, as missed opportunities. As proud as I am of our players, you just don't know if you're ever going to get that opportunity again. And if you do — what are the chances of having the No. 1 seed, a top two team in the country, pinned against the wall, like we had Minnesota last year and we had Miami this year.
"No. It's too disappointing."