Three years ago, Air Force shouldn’t have beaten Michigan. It wasn’t as fast. It wasn’t as strong. It wasn’t as skilled. It got throttled by a whopping 30 shots, and it gave Michigan seven power plays. Still, Andrew Volkening was masterful, totally untouchable in goal.
Volkening backstopped Air Force’s only win in the NCAA Tournament, making 43 saves in a career-defining performance, and Jason Torf hopes for similar success as the Falcons ready to face Boston College in the Northeast Regional on Saturday in Worcester, Mass.
In his only NCAA Tournament appearance, Torf, a sophomore, denied 26 shots last year in a 2-1 overtime defeat against Yale. Returning to the NCAA Tournament hasn’t been a smooth ride for Torf, who missed 14 games with a strained groin that he suffered in the season-opening weekend, then reclaimed the starting job from the red-hot Stephen Caple. He could easily be watching from the stands right now – and he concedes he’s fortunate.
Sitting out for so long while Caple shined “definitely renewed some energy in me,” Torf said, “and I think it’s paying dividends now. … When you get taken out of the game, you realize how much it means to your everyday life, just kind of your general happiness.” He added, “I think I’m better for it. I’ve made a conscious effort to make every day count.”
Without question, Torf owns the numbers to warrant a start in Worcester, where Boston College brings the nation’s fifth-best offense at 3.52 goals and a power play that’s hitting at 21.5 percent. Torf is 8-4-2 with a 1.72 goals-against average that’s fourth in the nation and a .928 save percentage, the country’s 10th-best mark. He turned back 57 of 59 shots last weekend in wins against Mercyhurst and the Rochester Institute of Technology at the Atlantic Hockey Association Final Four, recovering from a demoralizing pair of starts vs. Connecticut in the AHA quarterfinals in which he was yanked in favor of Caple.
Against Connecticut, Torf said, “I wasn’t moving quite the way I usually do,” so he was sluggish in maneuvering the posts, and he got beat on a few wrap-arounds, “which hasn’t happened to me since the beginning of my freshman year. … Sometimes, you’ve got to work back and just start with the basics, and then from there, you can get more complex.”
Despite his struggles, Torf told himself, “I’ve done a lot of good things.” That made the Final Four “about confirming that to myself, showing I still had that consistency and that the weekend before was an aberration,” he said. “I feel good. I feel comfortable with my game. … I’ve got to believe in the game I’ve worked hard on for the last couple years. I can’t try to change too much. I’ve just got to bring the same game forward.”
No longer does Torf dwell on the loss to Yale. “The way it happened – the last goal was so weird,” he said. “It was just kind of bouncing everywhere. What would have happened if that puck didn’t go in? We did have a lot of momentum in that overtime period.” Soon after the season, Torf reached this conclusion: “You start playing the what-if game, and anything under the sun is possible. I learned a lot. It was a great experience. I’m hoping that I can build off that. Maybe not be so wide-eyed and stunned when I walk in there.”
Torf isn’t bashful in admitting that last season Air Force (21-10-7) wasn’t “as talented as I feel we are this year. Last year was all about how much we wanted it, and even at that point, we could still be overcome. This year, we’re bringing a very, very strong team. If we play smart, we can take away what Boston College loves to do. … Last year, we were just about surviving long enough and hoping to get that late goal. This year, we have the talent, and we have the depth to hopefully try to make Boston College play our game.”
With five shutouts on the season, Torf has shown he’s capable of being dominant, sort of like Volkening. Plus, he said, he’s a firm believer that “a goalie can steal playoff series, playoff games. It has been proven over and over again. But for me, I have to approach it like it’s just another game. The hype builds itself up, and my game will hopefully elevate itself based on the situation. If I get too worked up or if I’m focusing too much on what Boston College is doing, then they’ve already won because they’re already in my head.”
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