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Chance at redemption for Air Force hockey during conference tournament

March 7, 2018 Updated: March 8, 2018 at 12:49 pm
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Air Force Academy's Jordan Himley celebrates after getting the puck past Army goalie Parker Gahagen to put AFA up 2-1 at the end of the second period Friday, January 27, 2017 at the Air Force Academy. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

A lot was expected from Air Force this year.

The Falcons were picked to finish first in the Atlantic Hockey Conference after just missing a trip to the Frozen Four. The team returned 90 percent of its scoring. And the eight-member senior class matched the biggest coach Frank Serratore had ever had.

Injuries, off seasons and plenty of general inconsistency later, Mercyhurst has the regular-season title and Air Force is the fifth seed in the conference tournament. But it’s not too late for this heralded senior class.

“Our season’s far from over, in our minds, as far as going out,” senior Ben Kucera said. “We aren’t at the point where we’re going to leave our legacy, we don’t think. We’ve still got more to play.”

The Falcons’ AHC quarterfinals series this weekend at Army represents a chance to redeem the season and to start another postseason run. The Falcons won’t be satisfied unless that run leads to an automatic bid and another NCAA regional appearance.

“Personally, I always look like that as (the regular season) doesn’t matter. What matters is now,” senior Jordan Himley said. “Doesn’t matter how you get there.”

Himley has reason to look forward. After a breakout junior season that included 22 goals, the Falcons’ returning leading scorer has eight goals and 10 assists, battled injuries and, at times, seemed out of sync with his teammates. His coach didn’t call him out by name, but there was little mystery.

He finished strong with four points in his last four regular-season games.

“It was rough, especially after last season, when everything was really clicking,” Himley said. “Everything’s coming back slowly.”

From the blue line and on the bench, captain Dylan Abood watched underclassmen who weren’t expected to crack the lineup take on major roles. They stopped the bleeding. They talked like veterans.

He called it a “great year.”

“It was not the season we wanted to have at the beginning of the year. We came in with big expectations,” Abood said. “But our No. 1 goal was always to be playing our best hockey come March. We’re getting pretty close to that.”

The series promises to be a memorable one, as the opponents’ games are almost always tight. The last blowout in a game between Air Force and Army came in 2011.

The only meetings between the Black Knights and Falcons this season was a low point for undermanned Air Force. It was swept in a two-game home series.

“Through all of it, through the adversity, we stayed positive and knew we had the right group of guys. Never lost faith,” Abood said.

There seems to be little doubt that this best-of-three series will be more entertaining. And the seniors will be playing like the rest of their college hockey careers depend on it.

AHC quarterfinals

5 seed Air Force (18-13-5, 13-11-4 AHC) at 4 seed Army (14-13-6, 12-10-6 AHC)

Friday-Saturday, 5:05 p.m., Sunday, 5:05 p.m. if necessary

All-time meetings: Air Force leads 41-23-6

Last meeting: Army swept Air Force at home in November, 3-2 and 2-0

Record in playoffs: Air Force leads, 4-0

Leading scorers: Army: sophomores Michael Wilson (17 goals, 12 assists) and Dominic Franco (11 goals, 17 assists). Air Force: senior Erik Baskin (14 goals, 10 assists) and junior Evan Giesler (9 goals, 11 assists).

In goal: Army: Senior Cole Bruns, 2.39 GAA, .921 save percentage, 11-9-3 record. Air Force: junior Billy Christopoulos, 2.24 GAA, .915 save percentage, 18-13-5 record.

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