Air Force goaltender Billy Christopoulos was yanked for the first time this season as the Falcons played some sloppy team defense and surrendered a season-high six goals to Niagara on Friday night.
The Falcons put 43 shots on Niagara goaltender Brian Wilson, but the Purple Eagles, who went 5-31-3 last season before turning to coach Jason Lammers, gave the Falcons an intimate look at their quick turnaround while doubling them up, 6-3.
Erik Baskin and Jordan Himley scored in the first period and Evan Giesler added a beauty in the third period when the game had long been decided.
“We got what we deserved,” coach Frank Serratore said.
A shorthanded goal on a delayed penalty ended Christopoulos’ night. Eric Cooley came in on the rush and was stopped, but the Falcons left the rebound sitting near the crease and Derian Plouffe buried it.
Christopoulos was pulled after allowing five goals on 15 shots and was replaced by freshman Zack LaRocque, who saw his first collegiate action and made 11 saves in relief.
“Bill has been there for us all year,” Air Force’s Tyler Ledford said. “We did leave him out to dry a little bit. We knew that was going to come if we relied on him so much throughout this year.
“We need to step it up for him tomorrow. Hopefully he’s back in.”
Plouffe scored his second of the night on LaRocque, streaking in alone and heavily covered. He fell to the ice as he put a shot on net that bounced off LaRocque and in to make it 6-2.
Serratore said the Purple Eagles (8-5-1, 7-2-1 Atlantic Hockey Conference) didn’t bring any surprises, but Air Force didn’t rise to the challenge.
“We had a pile of chances against them to score and their goalie did a great job, but the way they play, it’s a risk-reward game,” Serratore said. “We’re going to get chances, but they scored six legit goals.”
The teams combined for 27 shots in a busy first period and Niagara left with a 3-2 advantage, though it could have been crazier. Cooley got the Purple Eagles on the board first when he spotted a puck that had dribbled to the right of Christopoulos. Thirty-four seconds later, Baskin backhanded a rebound over Wilson’s shoulder.
Niagara scored twice in 2:06 and had Air Force (7-7-3, 3-6-2 AHC) on its heels, but a rebound of Phil Boje’s point shot bounced right to Jordan Himley, left alone in front of the net, and the winger netted his fifth of the season.
Down a goal, the Falcons’ attempts weren’t as frequent or accurate in the second period, but the Purple Eagles tacked on two more. Johnny Curran scored on the power play at the end of a tic-tac-toe play in front of the net.
“They’re a very unpredictable team in that you don’t know where they’re going to come from, but you know they’re going to come,” Giesler said. “We just have to be ready for their pressure and aggressiveness, and we need to match that intensity.”
With 5:21 to play in the game, Giesler turned around and, after being knocked to the ice and still wearing the Niagara defender who did it, maneuvered the puck past Wilson. It was a highlight for the home crowd, much of which sidled out early in the third period.
One highlight for the Falcons was getting senior Ledford, one of their many injured centers, back after nine games. He earned the primary assist on Baskin’s goal.
Serratore wasn’t sure a speech tomorrow morning would have much effect as the Falcons prepare to go for the series split.
“We didn’t have a lot of bite to our game. We’ve got to come back with some testosterone,” he said. “Video isn’t going to fix this. Tactics aren’t going to fix this. We need more willing participants out there.”