Air Force Rolls Past Northeastern, Providence to Win Tournament
by Joshua Seguin/Staff Writer
HANOVER, N.H. In a tournament featuring red hot Providence and Northeastern, few would have given Air Force much of a chance coming into the Ledyard Bank tournament at Dartmouth. But this weekend, Air Force was the best team on the ice for five of the six periods it played.
It was the type of turnaround Air Force has been waiting for, after a slow start to the season.
"For five of the six periods this weekend we just simply outworked our opponent," said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. "We took Providence's best punches in the third period and there is a reason they were number one in the Pairwise. We paid a price to win that game."
Air Force started the tournament off with a 5-2 win over Northeastern on Sunday, a game in which the Falcons dominated 29-16 in shots. It was a sign of things to come.
"Before break we had a bad run there," Air Force forward Cole Gunner said. "Northeastern was a great team and we knew we had to work hard and we did. Going into tonight we were playing the No. 1 team in the RPI. We were just excited and wanted to prove last night wasn't a fluke."
For two of the three periods Monday night, the Falcons not only outplayed and outworked the top-rated Pairwise team in the country at the time, Providence, but it dominated them. Through two periods, Air Force held a 27-12 lead in shots and territorially controlled a game against a team that many have on their short list of Frozen Four contenders. It did the same against a Northeastern team which entered the weekend in the top 10 in Pairwise.
It was clear how important this weekend was for the Falcons, as it left life and limb on the line for both games. In the second period against Providence, senior Adam McKenzie blocked two hard slapshots in the slot during a five-on-three penalty kill. The blocks preserved a 1-0 lead.
"Well it was a big moment in the game and that is our whole team," McKenzie said. "Anyone on the ice for us would have done the same thing. You have to block shots there. I layed down there and just took it."
Defensive plays often don't get as much credit as goals, but in the grand scheme of the game they are very important. A goal would have changed the direction of the game and tied it at one. McKenzie was arguably the best player on the ice against Providence and showed flashes of being the one of the best defensemen in the country that no one knows about.
"The guy who blocks a shot gets just as many kudos as the guy who scores a goal for us," said McKenzie. "It is something that is a big part of our room and everyone is willing to sacrifice and block shots."
Serratore said, "McKenzie was the defensemen of the year in our league last year. He is a terrific defensemen because he is terrific skater. He is so light on his skates because he is a one man breakout a lot of times. I told people two years ago, that Adam McKenzie is the best defensemen in the country that no one knows about because he was behind two other great defensemen. He should have been on a preseason watch list for All-American, he is that good."
Providence, meanwhile, was playing without star goaltender Jon Gillies, who is at the World Junior championships playing for Team USA. But that wasn't used as an excuse.
"They outworked us and outexecuted for the first 40 minutes," Providence coach Nate Leaman said. "We dug ourselves a hole and thought we could turn it on in the third. It is just disappointing."
When Air Force is good, like it was for much of this weekend, it is the aggressor with a smooth transition game. When it's not, it is conservative and not transitioning well. Against Providence, the Falcons got conservative in third, which almost cost them — Providence dominated the period, outshooting Air Force, 19-3 in the process.
Mitch Torrell, who had just two points coming into the season and played in limited amounts of games, has become a staple at Air Force. He was named tournament MVP.
"Mitch is a guy that had some holes in his game," said Serratore. "Defensively he wasn't very strong but he has simplified his game and he has learned our system. He wanted to play more. He earned his way in the lineup and has played with consistency. WIth that he is a young man that is playing with a ton of confidence."
Torrel said, "The break came at a good time for us. I think we are underrated right now because we have a lot of guys with some talent. If we continue to do the fundamental things we are definitely going to be a contender come March."
One must remember the uncertainty that Air Force began its season under, as the government shutdown effected Air Force athletics more than most realize.
"We are still trying to find ourselves as a team," said Serratore. "Our season started off with the government shutdown and we couldn't practice. I was the only one that could coach the team because the other coaches are government employees and couldn't be out there. We went to Alaska with short practice and didn't play well."
For Air Force, winning a Christmas Tournament is all well and good but it has to back it up in the coming weeks.
"For us this is just the beginning," said McKenzie. "We had kind of an up and down first half, ending on a bit of a slide. We really came out energized and played really well this weekend. We are going to use this as momentum going into the second half."
Looking ahead, the Cadets have a two game series against AIC in Springfield beginning on Friday and are staying in the Boston area until then. It will be a time to bond and spend quality time as a team.
"This trip is a terrific diversion for our guys to be able to go on the road, not having to worry about homework, school or their military requirements and just be hockey players," said Serratore.
Host Dartmouth, which is the midst of a unexpectedly dreadful season at 2-11-1, lost the opener to Providence on Sunday, before engaging in a wild 8-8 tie with Northeastern in the consolation game.
Dartmouth scored six straight goals to take an 8-4 lead, then allowed four Northeastern goals in the final 11 minutes of regulation.
“It was an interesting game, unless you were on the bench," Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet said. "For the fans it was just a crazy game. We scored goals and they scored a ton. We couldn’t close it out, but we scored a lot of goals. We need to defend better but it was an entertaining game.”
Northeastern, which has been the opposite of Dartmouth — surprisingly very good — was the victim of Air Force's strong weekend in Sunday's loss.