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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Air Force’s penalty kill has been stellar at keeping its opponents’ power plays in check. But it’s also been a potent offensive threat for the Falcons, as Western Michigan found out Friday night in the second game of the NCAA East Regional semifinals at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
Kyle Haak’s short-handed goal at 11:02 of the first period gave the third-seeded Falcons a 2-0 lead, and Air Force held on for 5-4 victory despite two Western Michigan goals in a span of 23 seconds early in the third period.
Air Force will face Harvard, the region’s top seed, at 8:30 p.m. EDT Saturday for the right to advance to the Frozen Four in Chicago.
Haak’s score was the eighth short-handed goal of the year for Falcons, who entered the night with the top-rated penalty kill in the country.
“It starts with structure,” Haak said. “We use the blue line as a fifth defender to force offsides. I don’t know how many offsides we forced tonight, but it was a lot. That structure leads to opportunities on the offensive end.”
Haak finished the game with two goals, while Jordan Himley had a goal and two assists. Shane Starrett had 22 saves for Falcons (27-9-5). Ben Blacker made 25 saves for the second-seeded Broncos, while Frederik Tiffels had two goals and Griffen Molino finished with a goal and an assist.
The win was the second in NCAA tournament history for the Falcons, who were making their sixth appearance overall and first since 2012.
Trailing 1-0 midway through the first period, a chance to tie the score turned into disaster for the Broncos when Haak stole the puck from Taylor Fleming as the WMU defenseman attempted to cross his own blue line. Haak turned on the jets and beat Blacker to give the Falcons a 2-0 lead.
Air Force’s speed kept the Broncos off balance for most of the night, although it appeared tired in the third period as Western Michigan mounted a frantic comeback.
Phil Boje’s power-play goal gave the Falcons a 4-1 lead 3:58 into the final period and appeared to seal the game. But Molino and Sheldon Dries scored within a span of 23 seconds to pull the Broncos to within one goal.
“We were preaching a lot to the choir,” Serratore said. “They were looking like deer in the headlights and I’m going, ‘Boys, look at the scoreboard — it’s 4-3. Would we have taken that coming into this game?’ And they just kind of went yes, and I think that helped us reset a little bit.”
Serratore’s talk paid off, as Tyler Ledford took a pass from A.J. Reid and completed a two-on-one rush to beat Blacker at 6:45 to make it 5-3.
“I think in Canada they call it the TSN turning point,” Serratore said. “The TSN turning point was us coming back and getting that fifth goal. I’m not real good in math, not as good as the guys are, but we ended up needing that goal. To be able to answer there was huge.”
Tiffels scored an extra-attacker goal at 18:01 to pull the Broncos to within one, but a penalty by Wade Allison with just over a minute left put a damper on any Western Michigan comeback.
“It’s disappointing for our team to play at this level at this time of year,” Broncos coach Andy Murray said.
The Falcons took a 1-0 lead on Himley’s 21st goal of the season 56 seconds into the game. Following Haak’s short-handed score, Tiffels put a rebound past Starrett to cut Air Force’s lead to 2-1 14:20 into the first.
But Haak’s second of the night restored the Falcons’ two-goal lead at 5:05 of the second.
Despite the loss, Western Michigan ended the season with a 14-victory improvement from last year’s eight-win season. Still, that didn’t remove the sting from a tough loss.
“There were a lot of tears shed in the locker room,” Murray said. “We all feel that we let our school down here tonight. They battled all year; it’s just disappointing that it ended like this.”