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Air Force hockey to play Western Michigan in NCAA Tournament opener

By: Joe Paisley, The Gazette
March 19, 2017 Updated: March 19, 2017 at 6:28 pm
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Air Force hockey is headed to the East Regional as the No. 3 seed and will face Western Michigan in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. (Via Twitter, AF_HKY)

Air Force hockey will play a familiar foe in well-known territory when it makes its return to the NCAA Tournament on Friday.

The third-seeded Falcons (26-9-5) will play Western Michigan, a team it lost and tied (5-5, 4-1) against on Nov. 19-20 in Kalamazoo, Mich.

The rematch against the 22-12-5 Broncos will be at 5:30 p.m. Mountain Friday in the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., and will be broadcast locally on 1300 AM and on ESPN3.

Air Force, the 16-team tournament’s 12th seed overall, plays in the Boston-based Atlantic Hockey Conference so the Falcons are not fazed by another long trip back East on Wednesday.

Being 12th is the best seeding ever for the Falcons in six NCAA berths. Air Force's previous best was 13th in 2009 -- the year they knocked off East regional top seed Michigan for the program's first NCAA tourney victory.

Air Force coach Frank Serratore already knows plenty about WMU and where to get the team meals.

“They’re a really good team with a good mix of size and skill,” he said. “I’m glad we play them in a one and done and not a seven-game series. They play a heavy game and have guys who can score. Not many teams have that mix.

“I also know we are going to get some good Italian food.”

The Falcons last won the Atlantic Hockey Conference tournament title in March 2012 – also their last NCAAs appearance.

The NCAA announced the matchups of the four regional tournaments during its selection show Sunday morning.

Third-ranked Harvard earned the top regional seed and will be the home team against the Providence Friars in the East Regional opener.

Air Force advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years after a heart-pounding 2-1 win over Robert Morris on Saturday night.

Sophomore goalie Shane Starrett, who did not play in the loss to WMU, made 24 saves as the Falcons staved off a furious effort by the Colonials, including a full 2 minutes, 30 seconds at the end of the third period with RMU playing with the extra attacker.

Showing that kind of mental toughness did not surprise WMU coach Andy Murray when a Detroit Free Press reporter told him about the ending.

“First and foremost, you respect them because of some things that come with their chosen occupation,” Murray said. “These are guys that are prepared to defend our country. Mentally very tough. They’re going to play you for the full 60 minutes."

Both teams spent Sunday traveling home while working with the NCAA to get the team, coaches and support staff out to Rhode Island for Thursday’s media events and practices.

Murray said his team, which is coming off back-to-back losses to No. 1 overall seed Denver and NCHC playoffs champion Minnesota-Duluth, would travel by “dog sled” if necessary.

Top seed Denver (Midwest in Cincinnati), No. 2 overall seed Duluth (West in Fargo, N.D.) and No. 4 Minnesota (Northeast in Manchester, N.H.) earned the other regional top seeds.

The Pioneers, who won the NCHC regular-season title, open against Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs champ Michigan Tech at 11 a.m. Saturday. The Denver-MTU winner will play the victor between Union and Penn State on Sunday.

If the Falcons prevail, they would play in the regional final Saturday night at 6:30 Mountain on ESPNU.

Each regional winner advances to the NCAA Frozen Four on April 6-8 in Chicago’s United Center.

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