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Air Force edges Bentley, moves on to Atlantic Hockey semifinals

March 11, 2017 Updated: March 11, 2017 at 11:14 pm
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Air Force Academy's Shane Starrett (#40) protects the goal against Bentley's Jake Kauppila (#19) shot during the Atlantic Hockey Conference quarterfinal series on Saturday, March 11, 2017 at the Cadet Ice Arena. Photo by Spotlight Sports Photography.

Bentley put up a dogged fight to keep its postseason alive, but Ben Kucera - a healthy scratch in Friday's series opener - scored the third-period winner in a game that featured two ejections and Air Force won 2-1, moving on to the Atlantic Hockey Conference semifinals.

"We were a whisker away from coming back for a Game 3. We're very fortunate," coach Frank Serratore said Saturday. "There's no question that we did it the hard way tonight."

Air Force is chasing its sixth AHC tournament title in 11 years, with the most recent banner hung in 2012. The Falcons are just outside the NCAA Tournament rankings and likely need to win the conference tournament to secure a berth.

Behind 1-0 in the series, Bentley started Aidan Pelino, who took over in goal when his team was down 3-0 on Friday, and the visiting Falcons played better in front of him. Andrew McDonald scored Bentley's first goal of the series 10:10 into the second period when he buried a back-door rebound to even the score at 1.

The Falcons had a chance to get it back during 46 seconds of 5-on-3, but Matt Koch's bid rang off the post. Tensions rose, with the teams seemingly competing to see who could get away with the most blatant jab. Bentley's Alexey Solovyev was ultimately handed a major for a hit to the head and ejected.

"With all the penalties, there was really no flow to it," Kucera said. "Emotions were running high. It took everything we had to keep our emotions there."

Kucera, filling in for injured Trevor Stone, slid in and buried the puck between Pelino's pads 38 seconds into the third period.

"Feno got booted for that faceoff, so I decided to hop in," Kucera said. "I won that back, and I don't remember much of what happened after that.

"It's been an up-and-down year, so I'll take anything I can get."

Evan Feno, who earned the primary assist on Kucera's goal, was tossed with 9:39 left in the game after he caught a Bentley player in the face with his stick.

"This ain't the time of year to take five-minute majors," Serratore said.

The penalty kill went to work and the Falcons held on.

Air Force wanted a better start after they weren't sharp early Friday. The first five minutes of the game looked like an extended power play, with Bentley barraged in its own end, but all the host Falcons had to show at the period break was a 1-0 lead.

Almost six minutes into the game, Jordan Himley crossed in front of the net, picked up a rebound and tucked it past Pelino low on his glove side. The goal was unassisted.

Air Force will face either Army or Robert Morris on Friday in the AHC final four in Rochester, N.Y., in a single-elimination game.

The locker room was loud and joyous, but Himley said the Falcons are focused.

"The first five minutes of next Friday is what we're looking at," Himley said.

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