The tangible elephant - the stuffed one that took several fans more than a dozen tries to heave onto the ice during an annual teddy bear toss in the second period - drew loud cheers.
The metaphorical elephant - the one in the room that became unavoidable late in the third period - was that Air Force's latest attempt to get back on track would fall short, and the first half of its promising season would end below .500. That one, not so many cheers.
The score was closer, but Niagara swept Air Force into a nearly monthlong break Saturday night.
“We kind of beat ourselves tonight,” forward Matt Serratore said. “It’s kind of a tough pill to swallow when you don’t get outplayed.”
Coach Frank Serratore was noncommittal after Friday night’s 6-3 loss, but Billy Christopoulos got the nod in net a night after allowing five goals. He made 17 saves but allowed a goal in each period and the Purple Eagles tacked on two empty-netters for a 5-2 finish.
Air Force (7-8-3, 3-7-2 Atlantic Hockey Conference) needed a better defensive effort to salvage a split against a team it had gone 8-1-1 against since the start of 2015. But the Falcons got off to a poor start when Christopoulos lost track of a bouncing puck and Niagara’s Zach Mills scored 26 seconds into the first period.
Matt Serratore scored his team-leading seventh goal of the season 13:14 into the second period, pinching in and batting a rebound into the net with a backhand. Stuffed animals, bound for children in need this holiday season, rained onto the ice.
Once the critters had been cleared, it took the Purple Eagles (9-5-1, 8-2-1 AHC) 1:15 to respond as Nick Farmer got behind the Air Force defense at center ice, skated in alone and scored Niagara’s second shorthanded goal in as many nights.
“Self-inflicted wounds,” Frank Serratore said. “The last man back can’t turn the puck over.”
The Purple Eagles’ Tanner Lomsnes got his second of the series early in the third. More than 10 minutes elapsed before Air Force’s Erich Jaeger streaked in on a two-on-one and put a centering pass on Trevor Stone’s stick. Stone buried it for his first goal of the season.
Air Force called its time out and played with the extra attacker for 1:36, but Farmer and Derek Brown scored empty-netters to top off a dominant series.
“We chased the scoreboard the entire weekend,” Frank Serratore said. “Sometimes you can overcome it … but it’s hard to do that.”
The Falcons’ next game is Dec. 29 against Colorado College. They hope to regain several injured players around that time.
“The break is pretty well-needed for us right now. It’s been a tough stretch,” Matt Serratore said.
“Hopefully we can come back with a new energy and be the team we were last year in the second half.”