The Air Force hockey team lost defenseman Kevin Wright to a bizarre NCAA academic rule. Then captain Jeff Hajner and third-line right winger Danny Durham went down with injuries. And now, captain Brett Nylander and defenseman Brad Sellers are banged up.
“How many more hits can this team take?” Falcons coach Frank Serratore asked Saturday following a sweep of Army in the Atlantic Hockey Association quarterfinals.
Probably not many more, because Air Force, gunning for its fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, has no healthy reserves going into the AHA semifinals, where it will renew what’s becoming a heated rivalry with Sacred Heart on Friday in Rochester, N.Y.
Like previous years, Air Force (16-14-6) must win the AHA Final Four to claim a spot in the 16-team NCAA Tournament because its PairWise ranking – a number derived from a squad’s record and strength of schedule – isn’t high enough for an at-large bid. Rochester Institute of Technology, the No. 1 seed in the AHA, faces Canisius in the other semifinal.
The Falcons’ most experienced defenseman with 149 games played, Nylander is expected to dress again, despite a hip pointer that he suffered Friday in a 3-0 victory against Army. Sellers (right ankle) and Durham (left shoulder) are questionable – Durham hasn’t played the past four games, and Sellers was sidelined Saturday when Air Force beat Army 4-2.
Hajner had appeared in a school-record 150 straight games before he endured a blood clot in his right calf, ending his season last month. In his absence, Sean Bertsch has enjoyed a scoring outburst, with four goals in the past three games, and in that same stretch, Derrick Burnett and Jacques Lamoureux have combined for six goals and three assists.
The wild card for Air Force is goaltender Andrew Volkening, who stopped 60 of 62 shots against Army – one of the goals he allowed was on the power play. Volkening is 11-1 in the AHA Tournament, having given up 18 goals, and he marked wins in each of the three AHA championship games that sent the Falcons to the NCAA Tournament.
“A lot of us have a lot of confidence, seeing we’ve had a lot of success in the playoffs,” Volkening said. “This is a different team than it was the last couple years, with different personalities, so we’re not taking anything for granted.”
Third-seeded Air Force and second-seeded Sacred Heart, which swept Holy Cross in its AHA quarterfinal series, split four games in the regular season – the Falcons won 6-3 and 8-1 in Colorado Springs, and the Pioneers (20-12-4) won 4-1 and 5-1 in Fairfield, Conn. Air Force’s victories last month broke momentum from a 15-1-2 run by Sacred Heart.
The Falcons topped Sacred Heart in three games in last year’s AHA quarterfinals, a series marked by the Game 1 spat between Serratore and former Pioneers coach Shaun Hannah. They nearly came to blows in a heated postgame exchange, then Hannah refused to shake Serratore’s hand. Hannah resigned in September, and C.J. Marottolo succeeded him.
Serratore likes his team’s prospects in the rematch since his players have “overcome so much adversity. This is not the mighty Falcons of last year. This is the fighting, scrapping Falcons. … This team has earned my respect. They won’t quit. They won’t go away. And No. 1 (Volkening) just takes us on his back every night and gives us a chance.”