When the dust of the regular season settled, Air Force hockey found itself with one disadvantage that might not be a disadvantage at all.
Air Force won its final regular-season series at Robert Morris. But the Falcons landed in a three-way tie for third place in the Atlantic Hockey Conference with Holy Cross and Army, which held tiebreakers.
So their rapid ascension through the standings was enough to secure a bye, but not home-ice advantage. Fifth-seeded Air Force will have the week off to rest and recuperate, then travel to West Point, New York to take on fourth-seeded Army in their conference tournament.
“With this group, if we wouldn’t have had those injuries, I really believe that we would be the league champ,” coach Frank Serratore said. “We certainly would have challenged (top-seeded) Mercyhurst.
“Whatever team comes out of that is going to be a team to be reckoned with at the Atlantic Final Four.”
One point along the way – Serratore pointed to a home game against Sacred Heart postponed due to the federal government shutdown in January, and made up on the road in the middle of the week – could have given Air Force sole possession of third place and the comforts of home.
But at 10-6-4 on the road, better than a home record barely over .500, another trip might not be such a bad thing.
“If there was ever an Air Force team that was able to get in a venue like that and get it done, this is one of them,” Serratore said.
Army swept Air Force in their only meeting, Nov. 3-4 at Cadet Ice Arena. It was during the time the Falcons were hit hard by injuries and made up the middle of a season-high, four-game losing streak.
“It’s a different team that played that weekend,” Serratore said.
There’s a lot of history in a series that began in 1976. Air Force has gone 14-5-4 against Army since 2010 and beat the Black Knights in the conference semifinals last season, 1-0.
But that recent sweep weighs heavily. Senior Ben Kucera was one of many veterans missing from the lineup that weekend. Another crack at a service academy rival is appealing.
“I think we want to get back at them. It’s do-or-die,” Kucera said. “It’s a lot bigger circumstances, and we want to end them more than anything.
“Yeah, it’s playoffs, but it’s also Army.”
As predicted and as usual, Air Force turned it on in the second half of the season, going 11-5-2 after Christmas. The Falcons now have their reward – an extra week of preparation.
“I think our bodies need it,” senior Tyler Ledford said.