It took the Air Force Academy Fighting Falcons 27 years to beat the University of Denver Pioneers again last year.
This year, the No. 11, and undefeated, Falcons knocked off the No. 3 Colorado College Tigers for the first time since 1985, 4-1 Friday night at Cadet Ice Arena in front of a sold-out, standing room-only crowd of 3,063-the fourth largest crowd in school history.
“Obviously those were the two big things on my bucket list, to find a way to beat our two neighbors,” Falcons’ coach Frank Serratore quipped after the game, “and it was a tall order. I mean, these teams are good. I’ve been here 12 years and we haven’t played them when they weren’t in the top-15. These teams are good.
“It’s huge. It certainly validates us as a very good team and a very good program.”
CC put a lot of pressure on the Falcons early in the first period, but Air Force got on the scoreboard first near the halfway point of the frame on a Paul Weisgarber goal. Sean Bertsch’s shot from the right faceoff circle bounced off the leg pads of Tigers’ netminder Richard Bachman (13 saves) and was picked up by Weisgarber for the rebound tally.
Perhaps the Tigers’ best chance came with 5:11 left in the first when Bill Sweatt cranked a shot off the left post behind Falcons’ goaltender Andrew Volkening (28 saves) while the two squads were four-on-four.
“Other than the first seven minutes, I thought they took it to us virtually the entire game,” said CC coach Scott Owens. “I knew they’d be fired up, I knew they’d be skating hard, winning battles, but I didn’t think they’d out-compete us as hard as they did tonight. I thought we’d have a little bit more than we did.”
The Falcons went up 2-0 a mere 36 seconds into the second period when Jeff Frider deflected a Greg Flynn shot that was initially going wide into the far left corner of the net and past Bachman.
“They’re a good team and they’ve got good balance,” said Owens. “Team is the best word for them.”
About three minutes later, the Falcons took a 3-0 lead on a short-handed goal. Richard Bachman took a Mike Phillipich shot, carried it around his own net and left it for his defense. However, Phillipich swept in, grabbed the idle puck and banked it off the back of Bachman and in.
“I’m thinking we better not screw this up,” said Serratore, when asked about his thoughts at that point of the game.
It almost looked like the Falcons went up 4-0 on a scrum in front of the net a minute later, but the officials couldn’t tell if the puck was in the net behind Bachman and therefore waved off the goal.
However, Air Force went up 4-0 for real with 2:17 left in the period on a power-play goal when Brett Nylander took a rising shot from the high slot that went high glove side on Bachman. As a result, the sophomore netminder was pulled for the first time in his career in favor of senior Drew O’Connell (six saves).
“I just said, hey, just going to get you out of there,” said Owens on what he told his goaltender. “And basically, without sharing too much, it’s just a good night for you to get out of there right now and don’t blame yourself and you’ll live to fight another day.”
However, the change in net couldn’t spark the CC offense, which has been anemic all season. Neither could a five-minute power play early in the third period, which the Tigers got when Frider got five minutes and a game misconduct for checking from behind.
“Our penalty kill was awesome tonight, and it had to be,” said Serratore. “It was awesome, and it had to be. It demoralized them, and it had to be. We are not a heavily penalized team and we haven’t had a major all year, [and] we got called for two right here.”
The Tigers did manage to spoil Volkening’s shutout bid 11:48 into the third period when Ryan Lowery’s centering pass banked off of Bill Sweatt’s shin pad and past Volkening.
However, the Falcons did not let the goal faze them and they stood strong throughout the end. Still, Serratore didn’t relax at all until the waning minutes of the game.
“I was kind of on pins and needles there until about, when we got under the three-minute mark and they just didn’t seem to have any legs left and they were frustrated,” he said.
“It feels very good for the senior class not to go 0-4 against them,” said Phillipich.
The Falcons next face off against No. 9 Denver Saturday night at Magness Arena in Denver while the Tigers return home to face non-conference foe Colgate.