Air Force forward Jacques Lamoureux remembers talking to his father last year before he played in the Atlantic Hockey Association championship game.
“I’m nervous,” Lamoureux told him. “I’m scared of the fact that this could all be over.”
A similar conversation might unfold this week, as Air Force, aiming for its fourth straight NCAA Tournament berth, makes preparations to face an experienced, high-powered team in Sacred Heart in the AHA semifinals Friday in Rochester, N.Y.
Third-seeded Air Force (16-14-6) must again run the table at the single-elimination AHA Final Four (it would play Saturday against the winner of the other semifinal between top-seeded Rochester Institute of Technology and fifth-seeded Canisius) because its PairWise ranking isn’t nearly high enough for an at-large bid to the 16-team NCAA Tournament.
This trip to Rochester probably will be the toughest yet for the shorthanded Falcons, who don’t have any healthy reserves after a rough-and-tumble sweep of Army last weekend in the AHA quarterfinals. And unlike the past two years, in which they topped Mercyhurst in the AHA title game, they enter as somewhat of an underdog, not the decisive favorite.
Second-seeded Sacred Heart (20-12-4) lacks a dominant goaltender – Steven Legatto has a 3.07 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage, compared to a 2.46 GAA and a .918 save percentage by Air Force’s Andrew Volkening. But Sacred Heart averages 3.56 goals, and Nick Johnson and Dave Jarman have combined for 40 goals and 60 assists.
What’s maybe most dangerous is Sacred Heart’s ability to score on rebounds – a thorn in the side of Air Force in 4-1 and 5-1 defeats to the Pioneers in January in Fairfield, Conn. When Air Force swept Sacred Heart with 6-3 and 8-1 wins last month in the final regular-season series, Volkening covered rebounds, and the Falcons scored six power-play goals.
“They might get that first shot,” said Air Force defenseman Brett Nylander, who will play despite a hip pointer he suffered Friday against Army. “The key is to find your guy, tie up your guy in front, make sure that they’re not getting the second shot. … Don’t give them that second opportunity. Don’t give them that second swing in front of the net.”
Air Force center Sean Bertsch admits there’s more pressure in a must-win scenario.
“The margin of error is slim,” he said. “You screw up once, and the puck ends up in the back of your net, and that could be the game-winning goal. … There’s definitely a little bit of added pressure. Fortunately, I think we have a lot of veteran players who have been in these situations before and understand what it takes to push forward.”