Air Force saw a one-goal lead disappear in 30 seconds on Friday at Cadet Ice Arena. Once the Falcons regained the lead, they made sure not to lose it.
Fourth line left wing Max Hartner broke a tie with 10:17 remaining in the second period and the No. 3-seeded Falcons suffocated No. 6 Niagara for the entire third period to win Game 1 of the Atlantic Hockey Association best-of-three quarterfinals 2-1.
"These playoffs games are going to be close," Hartner said. "It's playoffs. Nobody wants their season to end."
Niagara (13-19-5) pulled freshman goalie Jackson Teichroeb with 1:40 remaining, but continued to struggle to get pucks through the Air Force (21-12-4) defense, which held the Purple Eagles to only five shots in the final period.
Jason Fabian thwarted Niagara's final attempt in the waning seconds when the senior blocked Matt Williams shot from the point.
The 6-foot-4 center also won a game-high 11 faceoffs for the Falcons, who had a 28-15 advantage in the faceoff circle.
"We have emphasized faceoffs all year," Fabian said. "Possession is huge in games like that, especially at the end with the goalie pulled. It's big when we can help the transition."
Both of Air Force's goals came in transition and in nearly identical fashion.
Air Force scored first when Chad Demers skated down the left side, and held up just enough to get Phil Nasca to drop to the ice for a block attempt, before he fed the puck to Cole Gunner on the right doorstep for a 1-0 lead at 6:28 of the second period.
However, 30 seconds later Niagara senior Patrick Divjak scored an unassisted goal to tie the score.
The Falcons then struck back on another 2-on-1 rush when Hartner tapped in the eventual game-winning goal on a left-side feed from George Michalke III with 10:17 remaining in the second.
Teichroeb was a wall in net with 35 saves as Air Force outshot the Purple Eagles 37-27. Falcons goalie Jason Torf had 26 saves.
Air Force coach Frank Serratore commended Niagara for its effort despite having to travel across the country Friday morning because of winter weather travel issues.
"We are fortunate that game went our way," Serratore said. "Tomorrow is going to be a lot more difficult. The toughest game to win in a best-of-three series is the game that eliminates your opponent because nobody wants their season to end."
Niagara coach Dave Burkholder was proud of his team, which is also without leading goal scorer Isaac Kohls, effort.
"We obviously showed a little fatigue as the game wore on," Burkholder said. "But, desire over experience. If we can play like that again it's going to be a long series."
Prior to the game the Falcons watched a video with highlights from last year's quarterfinal loss to Canisius.
"It was a reminder of how terrible it is," Fabian said, "that feeling you get when your season ends before it should."
Air Force now has Niagara on the ropes.
"Last year we didn't get it done in the first game and that hurt us," Fabian said. "Now they are fighting for their lives. Their backs are against the wall, and we can hopefully play on their mistakes because they are trying to do too much to keep their season going."