Updated: March 15, 2014 at 10:31 pm
Niagara attacked Air Force like you'd expect from a team that didn't want its season to end.
As a result, the squads will face off again on Sunday with the assurance that one team will, in fact, be finished.
The Purple Eagles stormed to a two-goal lead on the Falcons' home ice, then survived an Air Force run before finally securing a 4-3 victory on Saturday to even at 1-1 a three-game series that will send the winner to the Atlantic Hockey Association semifinals next week in Rochester, N.Y.
"We better come out with a lot more attitude tomorrow night," said Air Force coach Frank Serratore, who stressed that he shouldn't need to stress that message to his team. "I'm not worried about it. They better worry about it. It's their season. I can't want it more than them. They've got to want it more than anybody."
The urgency from Niagara (14-19-5) was apparent in the first 25 minutes on Saturday. Hugo Turcotte scored the first of his two goals on a deflection in the first period and Vince Muto made it 2-0 early in the second period.
Goalie Jason Torf, who made 29 saves, was the only thing standing between Air Force (22-12-4) and an even larger deficit at that point.
Air Force finally sprang to life on what Serratore called a "lucky" goal from Chad Demers, as he took advantage of a deflected puck behind Niagara's goal that floated in the air, out of the line of sight of goalie Jackson Teichroeb.
Air Force then evened the score on a goal from Ben Carey. But the momentum and an emotional high seemed to wane after defensive miscues led to a pair of Niagara goals that pushed the Falcons back into catch-up mode.
"To get down 2-0 in your building, that's definitely not something you want to do," said Demers, who had five of Air Force's 26 shots. "We should have had our switch turned at the start of the puck, we shouldn't have had to get down 2-0 before we start playing good hockey."
A physical third period set the stage for what should be a thriller at 7:05 p.m. Sunday. The Purple Eagles have been Air Force's opponent for the past four games, with the teams splitting on both teams' home ice.
Goals scored in those games are split 10-10.
Air Force has advanced to the AHA semifinals in six of the past seven years, winning the title five times. But after being eliminated in the quarterfinals last year, the Falcons would miss out for the second straight season without a victory on Sunday.
"Tomorrow's going to be scrappy, with both teams playing for their lives," Demers said. "It's definitely going to be physical and chippy. You saw the officiating, there's not a lot of calls out there, so it's definitely going to be a rough and tough men's league sort of game out there."