Updated: March 18, 2012 at 12:00 am
Air Force expected the road to the Frozen Four wasn’t going to be easy. To get there, the Falcons learned Sunday they must upset 2010 national champion Boston College, which has won 15 straight, then they may have to beat 2011 national champ Minnesota-Duluth.
Stuck with perhaps the toughest draw of the 16 NCAA Tournament qualifiers, Air Force will face the No. 1 overall seed, Boston College, on Saturday in the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass. Minnesota-Duluth plays Maine in the other semifinal, with the winners meeting Sunday and the regional champion advancing to the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla.
Being the No. 16 seed wasn’t a surprise for Air Force, which ended 23rd in the PairWise rankings, meaning the Falcons (21-10-7) wouldn’t have received an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament if they hadn’t won the Atlantic Hockey Association Final Four last weekend in Rochester, N.Y. Air Force is again the only AHA team in the field, cracking the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years – the best stretch in school history.
“We’ve got a tough task with Boston College, but I’d like to think that Boston College is going to have their hands full with us,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore, whose team is 14-5 in elimination games since joining the AHA in 2006. He added, “We don’t have to beat them in a best-of-seven. We’ve got to beat them one game. Anybody is capable of beating anybody one game. … We’ve been in this position. We’re not intimidated by it.”
The 15-game winning streak by Boston College (29-10-1) ranks as the country’s longest, as the Eagles have outscored their opponents 61-19 during the span, which includes three shutouts and a 4-1 victory Saturday over Maine in the Hockey East championship game. They have eight wins against NCAA Tournament teams; nine NHL draft picks; a Hobey Baker Award finalist in defenseman Brian Dumoulin; a tougher-than-nails goaltender in Parker Milner; and a pair of 20-goal scorers in Barry Almeida and Chris Kreider. They’re fifth nationally in scoring offense and defense, and they’re third on the penalty kill.
Then again, Boston College is beatable, even when the Eagles are the hottest team in the country. Boston College had wins in 22 of 25 games last season before Colorado College hammered the Eagles 8-4 in the NCAA West Regional semifinals – a year removed from the fourth national title by Jerry York, whose 909 wins are the most for active coaches.
Despite the longest odds year after year, Air Force never goes down quietly in the NCAA Tournament, falling to Yale 2-1 in overtime in 2011; stunning Michigan 2-0 before a 3-2 defeat to Vermont in double overtime in 2009; losing to Miami 3-2 in overtime in 2008; and losing to Minnesota 4-3 in 2007. The Falcons are 0-5 all-time against Boston College – all of the losses have been by more than three goals, the most recent setback in 2007.
There’s no doubt Air Force has rediscovered its swagger after needing three games to get past Connecticut in the AHA quarterfinals. It never trailed at the Final Four, scoring a 5-2 triumph Friday over Mercyhurst and a 4-0 victory Saturday over the Rochester Institute of Technology. Jason Torf was selected MVP of the Final Four after he stopped 57 of 59 shots, and Air Force got three goals from Jason Fabian and two apiece from Cole Gunner, John Kruse and Paul Weisgarber – Gunner and Weisgarber were all-tournament picks, as were Tim Kirby and Scott Mathis, who spearhead the nation’s third-stingiest defense.
Boston College is only an hour from Worcester, where the Eagles have won in hitting the Frozen Four three times since 2006. In competing at the same tournament as Air Force in Grand Forks, N.D., in the season-opening weekend, Eagles captain Tommy Cross said in an interview with USCHO.com he was “really impressed” with the Falcons, “and they’ve only gotten better since then.” On Boston College not losing in almost two months, York told the website, “A lot of the games have been tightly contested games, so we’ve had to make good plays to win them. … Now, we’re starting from scratch, and everyone’s 0-0.”
Hockey analyst Barry Melrose had Boston College taking the national title on the NCAA Tournament selection show on ESPNU, saying that “they just play the best hockey this time of the year. It’s an unbelievable group, and they know how to win.” Serratore said, “I kind of like it, to be honest with you. It really puts us in an underdog position, where we have nothing to lose. … Right now, we feel we’re playing with the house money.”
DCU Center, Worcester, Mass.
No. 1 Boston College vs. No. 4 Air Force, 2 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU
No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth vs. No. 3 Maine, 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Regional championship game, 6 p.m. Sunday, ESPNU