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'Backbone' of Air Force hockey, goaltender Billy Christopoulos, leads team into vital last stretch

February 12, 2018 Updated: February 12, 2018 at 9:44 pm
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photo - Air Force goalkeeper Billy Christopoulos (44) holds on to the puck after a save against the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Cadet Ice Arena at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Friday October 13, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).
Air Force goalkeeper Billy Christopoulos (44) holds on to the puck after a save against the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Cadet Ice Arena at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Friday October 13, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

All season, even after rough outings, Air Force hockey teammates and coaches have showered first-year starting goaltender Billy Christopoulos with compliments.

He was the best player. He kept them in it. The team wasted his excellent effort, or he willed them to victory.

“What’s the X factor?” Falcons coach Frank Serratore said last week. “It’s Billy the Greek.”

They were words the junior, who took over in net after 2017 postseason hero Shane Starrett left the school to turn pro, needed to hear early on. Christopoulos’ road roommate, defenseman Matt Koch, says they both struggle occasionally with the mental portion of the game.

“We get in our heads. It gets in our way sometimes,” Koch said.

It took Christopoulos a while to get settled. The words certainly helped.

“I spent two years watching from the bench,” Christopoulos said. “Getting back in there, it took a little bit of time. Frank and the guys showed a lot of confidence in me.

“They’ve all been super supportive. None of the guys have shown any doubts. That definitely helped a lot.”

The senior-heavy team, picked to finish first in the Atlantic Hockey Conference, got off to a 5-1-1 start, but issues lurked beneath the surface.

“Even then, it didn’t feel right,” Christopoulos said.

Injuries hit and the Falcons limped to a 7-8-3 record, 3-7-2 in conference play, before the monthlong Christmas break.

But as usual, Air Force is on a second-half upswing. Christopoulos has allowed an average of 1.69 goals per game as the Falcons have gone 8-4-1 since Christmas.

The league also has had plenty of nice things to say about the goaltender. He was the AHC goaltender of the month twice, in October and January, and has picked up two weekly awards.

He tops the AHC in goals-against average (2.21) and wins (15) and is third in save percentage (.915).

“Billy has quietly over the course of the season become our MVP,” Serratore said. “He’s the only guy that’s gotten an A in the class up to this point and time.”

Now, with the postseason less than a month away, Christopoulos and the Falcons must find another level in order to get back to Rochester, New York for the Atlantic Hockey Tournament, and perhaps beyond.

Air Force stayed in New England to make up a game Tuesday against Sacred Heart that was canceled Jan. 20 due to a federal government shutdown. The Falcons sit seventh in the conference, the top five teams get first-round byes, and there are five games left to make up the difference.

“This time of year, it’s up to them,” Serratore said. “If you’re having to coach your buns off this time of year, you’re in trouble. The players have got to take this thing over.”

One player he hasn’t had to worry about so far? “Billy the Greek.”

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