BRIDGEPORT, Conn. For the 10 juniors and seniors on Air Force, the losses were always hard to completely forget.
Throughout the last two years, no matter high the Falcons flew — and they certainly soared at times — the final chapters of the last two seasons were always there.
They remembered the 3-1 lead in 2007, against Minnesota, and the plays that could’ve sealed the win. They remembered the overtime goal from Miami in the first round last year. And they remembered the emotions spilling over after both.
“We knew the last two years we had two great opportunities to play in the NCAA tournament,” Senior Brent Olson said. “We dropped the ball and they were missed opportunities. We wanted to make sure this year we got it done.
Fueled by the ghosts of seasons past and scene-stealing performance from Andrew Volkening (43 saves; his third highest game total), Air Force (28-10-2) created a memory the school won’t want to forget with a 2-0 victory over the East Regional’s top seed, Michigan.
“I think before the game [those games] probably crossed everybody’s mind,” Senior Mike Phillipich said.
The game stories will show that the Falcons were out shot 39-12 but moved on courtesy of steady goaltending from junior Andrew Volkening and the blue liners ability to limit quality scoring chances.
But the defense and goals by Derrick Burnett and Jacques Lamoureux only tell part of the Falcons tale. This was a victory fueled in the fires of disappointment.
“Those experiences reminded us that we needed to close out a third period,” Phillipich said. “They definitely played a role in showing us how to carry leads.”
Michigan ends the season 29-12.
Although Air Force doesn’t come right out with it, those endings had more than a little hand in the drama at Harbor Yard.
“We let those games slip away and want to let that happen again,” Andrew Volkening said. “We got a little bit of confidence from those games and used it.”
Ahead by two goals in the third period, the Falcons never allowed themselves to get scared.
“I don’t think we ever thought about it,” said Jacques Lamoureux, the nation's leading scorer, who added his 33rd in this game. “We kept up the speed and kept the plays on the perimeter. We really came in with a winning attitude and we weren’t going let the fear grip.”
The reminders of those defeats lingered during the annual Air Force midseason lull. After starting out the season 12-0 and turning the heads of nearly every hockey pundit around the country, Air Force proceeded to lose four-out-five in early Jan.
“We’ve hit lulls in the middle of the season the last two years and I don’t know why,” Phillipich said. “But we seem to get hot at the right times. I definitely think that prepared us. We were excited to win our conference tournament but it wasn’t nearly the celebration it was the first two times. We kind of expected it.
“This wasn’t about being participants.”
Those defeats didn’t just build pain, they also laid the groundwork for what lay ahead this season. The Falcons had taken two great programs to the wall and nearly came out with epic upsets. This time for the Falcons were no longer an upstart but rather a program that had gained the confidence it needed to carry out its mission.
“We kind of settled in [Friday] and got into a groove,” Olson said. “We took care of business. This was new. It was always good to have experience.”
The feeling from the Michigan bench all week was that were would be no surprises with Air Force. The players and coaching staff had seen the film and looked at the victories in the the Falcons’ win column. Air Force was a different team because of those first two years.
“We expected [Air Force] to play — this was not an upset,” Michigan Red Berenson said. “This is a real good Air Force team. They got the lead and they hung onto it.”
“We were really prepared. There wasn’t a lot frustration, there was a lot of disappointment.”
Still, upset or not, the victory was big for a program that had just only two previous tournament appearances.
“It definitely makes it better after the last two years, the third time was the charm,” Phillipich said.
The win was also the second for Atlantic Hockey in the NCAA tournament.
As much as Air Force wanted to put those defeats behind it, so do the Falcons with this epic win. Not 30 minutes after its first tournament win Air Force was staying focused on the task at hand.
“We’re here to win this Regional and we still have our eyes on the prize,” Phillipich said.
Along with the 8,478 fans at Harbor Yard — the largest hockey crowd ever in the arena — the rest of the hockey world will be watching to see what happens next.
“We have set ourselves up for the championship and we want to win that too,” Olson said. “We’re not settled. We want to keep going. Our goal is to make the Frozen Four and win the National championship.”