What a dark day for college hockey in Colorado Springs.
Colorado College loses to North Dakota in the NCHC playoffs, but that was expected. The Tigers, who spent this entire season wandering around lost, were playing in one of the most deafening, most hostile, most electric college arenas in America. They salvaged a bit of pride by pushing North Dakota to a third game.
The shock is Air Force's 4-3 loss in overtime to Niagara at Cadet Ice Arena. For years, Frank Serratore and his Falcons were the Men of March. Air Force played its best hockey at the end of the season. Air Force found ways to battle into five NCAA Tournaments in seven seasons.
Those days seemed far away when Niagara's Matt Williams pushed a point-blank shot past Air Force's Jason Torf 4:49 into overtime. The Purple Eagles danced on the ice while Air Force players skated in small, sad circles. The Falcons end their season with a 21-14-4 record. Niagara skates off to Rochester and the American Hockey Association semifinals with a 15-19-5 record.
Torf delivered one of the finest careers in Air Force hockey history, but he ended his nights in a Falcon uniform looking at a puck in the back of the net.
"It's really tough for it to end that way," Torf said, speaking clearly a few minutes after the overtime shock. "I look back, and I'm not ???? if there's anything I could have done. That's going to be tough for me."
What adds to the pain for Torf and his teammates are the expectations. The Falcons had grown to expect to win the AHA and compete in the NCAA Tournament. For decades, the Falcons had bumbled along as one of the worst hockey programs in the country.
And then, suddenly, the program was filled with deserved swagger.
Some of that swagger was punctured by Niagara. This is the second straight season Air Force has failed to compete in the AHA Final Four.
"The group of guys we had, and the things we had already accomplished, it's shocking," Torf said. "This group is too good for it to end right here. We've done too much for this season to end.
"We thought we would be the team to finally take Air Force to the Frozen Four."
Instead, the Falcons' season is over on March 16.
It was an entertaining, physical, dramatic game. For three periods, the Eagles and Falcons pounded on each other. When Torf and his teammates went to the locker room before overtime, the Falcons were filled with confidence.
For a few years, Colorado Springs was an unlikely center of college hockey. The Tigers and the Falcons were rolling to victories. World Arena was packed on weekend nights, and Cadet Ice Arena, so often a gloomy destination, was hopping with fans.
Those good days are gone, at least for now.