Air Force shocked Michigan. It pushed Miami and Yale to overtime, and it took Vermont to double overtime. It gave Minnesota all it could handle. One euphoric victory and four agonizing losses for the Falcons in the past five years of the NCAA Tournament.
Now, Air Force is preparing to play the No. 1 overall seed, Boston College, in what ranks as an essential road game, with the Northeast Regional beginning Saturday in Worcester, Mass. The Falcons have been here so many times before. So it’s no problem, right? Well, not exactly. But there’s a ton more optimism, much more confidence this time around.
“If we go in there, and we play our game,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said, “we’re going to more than be in the game. … We have more than held our own in this situation.”
The 2-0 triumph over Michigan, in 2009, remains the only victory Air Force has notched in the NCAA Tournament – a game the Falcons won despite a 43-13 shot deficit. “That will be in the back of our minds,” said Air Force left wing Paul Weisgarber, whose two goals last weekend helped the Falcons to a pair of wins vs. Mercyhurst and the Rochester Institute of Technology at the Atlantic Hockey Association Final Four – Weisgarber got AHA weekly honors Monday, as did right wing Cole Gunner and goaltender Jason Torf.
Like Michigan of three years ago, Boston College boasts a lot of depth, having the luxury of three super-skilled lines, one directed by 22-goal scorer Barry Almeida, another led by 20-goal scorer Chris Kreider and another featuring 19-goal scorer Johnny Gaudreau. It’s tough to slow the Eagles (29-10-1) when Kreider flashes his speed, and Brian Dumoulin anchors a bulky defensive unit that’s capable of blocking shots. Plus, Parker Milner has a 1.20 goals-against average and a .954 save percentage during a 15-game winning streak.
The last time Air Force (21-10-7) faced a ranked opponent, on Dec. 31, it was dismantled 7-1 by No. 10 Denver. However, Air Force beat Colorado College 2-1 a night earlier, and the Falcons “played better (last) weekend,” Serratore said, “and I think we can play better yet. Hopefully, we’re saving our best for last.” Weisgarber said that “we’re feeling pretty good about how our game is, especially defensively,” as Air Force will put the third-best defense in the country against the nation’s fifth-rated offense owned by Boston College.
No college hockey pundits are giving Air Force much of a chance, the talk on the Internet already about a possible matchup between Boston College and 2011 national champion Minnesota-Duluth, which meets Maine in the other semifinal in Worcester. Still, Boston College coach Jerry York told College Hockey News, “The team that plays the very best that night advances. … We’re certainly not going to base anything on the seeds.”
For Serratore, the message to his players is simple: “You’re not going to win many games in the first period,” Serratore said. “But you can sure lose a lot of them. The longer that game goes on with the score being close, the more of an advantage it becomes to us.”
Weisgarber wasn’t bashful in proclaiming that Air Force “has come such a long way that we’re not satisfied with just making the tournament. Our goals are a little loftier now. … We’re going to go in there with the expectation that we need to win two games” to reach the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla. He added, “I don’t think we’re intimidated whatsoever.”
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