Air Force Earns Its Wings
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The past two seasons, Air Force has won the Atlantic Hockey tournament, qualified for the NCAA tournament, and nearly pulled off two consecutive upsets only to fall agonizingly short. Then it started this season 12-0.
Yet it took a split of a weekend series for Air Force to truly earn the respect it deserves.
A win over Colorado College "legitimized" the Falcons in the eyes of many, but Saturday's loss to Denver may go just as far. That's because the Falcons didn't just come in and lay down — but competed hard for 60 minutes, gave Denver a run for its money, and could easily have won had Pioneers goalie Marc Cheverie not been outstanding in a 38-save performance.
"Marc Cheverie was without a doubt the difference for us in the game tonight," head coach George Gwozdecky said. "He kept us in the game, and when we took the lead he gave us big time goaltending. He's been our top player these last three games. Give credit to Air Force. They never gave up. They were all over us in the final few minutes."
Rhett Rakhshani scored twice for the rejuvenated Pioneers, including the capper midway through the final period, and Kyle Ostrow tallied the game-winner as No. 9 Denver (9-5-1, 5-4-1 WCHA) skated to a 4-1 win over No. 11 Air Force (13-1-0, 10-0-0 AHA) in front of 6,032 fans at Magness Arena.
"Denver was really good tonight in the first period and I thought we were really good in the second period," Serratore said. "We weathered the storm in the first period and then they manufactured a goal in the second on the power play. The third period was good, but they were more opportunistic on their chances. The goal by (Rhett) Rakhshani was a sick, skilled goal. That was a tough one to swallow. I thought both teams played well and both goalies were really good."
Is Air Force ready to be a Frozen Four team? Probably not. But make no mistake, coach Frank Serratore has spent years meticulously building this program into something that could make a run like this, taking advantage of the strengths of the Academy and not dwelling on its weaknesses. Add in a pinch of catching lightning in a bottle — a goalie in Andrew Volkening who has emerged farther than perhaps anyone could've expected, and other players developing beyond their pedigree — and you have a deep, talented, committed four-line team that is older than anyone else in the nation.
"Nationally speaking, Frank and his program have developed great respect from everybody watching," Gwozdecky said. "This game could have gone either way tonight and if it was a seven-game series, it would have come down to game seven. Air Force should be in the top five in the nation and I hope the polls show that on Monday. Air Force is one of the best teams in the nation and they have proven that every weekend this season."
What has been shown is that Air Force is No. 1 in KRACH, the rating system used by CHN, and the early Pairwise, the system used by the NCAA. The numbers are volatile at this point, and Air Force has little margin for error because of the relatively weak conference it plays in. But even an Atlantic Hockey loss to a team like, say, RIT — which it plays twice next weekend — would still keep Air Force in the Top 10.
So Air Force isn't going away, and it continues to dominate Atlantic Hockey — say losing one game max this regular season — and wins its two remaining non-league games, then the Falcons could lose in the Atlantic Hockey tournament and still earn an at-large NCAA bid.
Those two non-league games by the way are against Yale and either Merrimack or Quinnipiac.