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With assist from NHL, goalie Billy Christopoulos key to Air Force hockey's continued rise

October 5, 2017 Updated: October 5, 2017 at 7:47 pm
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Billy Christopoulos, goalie for the U.S. Air Force Academy Falcons, deflects a shot as the Falcons met the University of Calgary Dinos in an exhibition college hockey matchup at the Academy's Cadet Ice Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo., Oct. 5, 2015. The Falcons defeated Calgary 5-0. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Once again, Billy Christopoulos is the heir apparent.

Beaten out by Shane Starrett, who went on to gather several MVP honors and turn pro, junior Christopoulos has reclaimed the net for the league-favorite, veteran-laden Falcons.

“Nothing against Billy, but I wish Shane was still here,” Air Force hockey coach Frank Serratore said. “We have to turn the page and move on.

“They’re two different guys. Two different goalies.”

This spring, fresh off an NCAA Tournament run that ended one goal shy of the Frozen Four, Starrett called his teammates in to announce he had signed a two-year, entry-level, free-agent deal with the Edmonton Oilers, a rare opportunity for an Air Force player.

“We always knew there was a chance with the two-year (academy) commitment coming up,” Christopoulos said. “He was a big name after this year so we all knew, deep down, there was a little bit of a chance.”

There was sadness and disappointment, but also excitement. And not just from the goaltender with a contract.

 “Obviously, you’re not rooting for another guy to be gone so you can have his spot,” Christopoulos said. “It was unbelievable to see one of your buddies do that. And on a personal level, I’m as excited as ever to be able to jump in here.”

Raleigh, N.C., native Christopoulos was recruited out of the British Columbia Hockey League, according to Serratore, to be the “heir apparent” for Chris Truehl, the starting goaltender in the 2014-15 season. Truehl unexpectedly left after his sophomore season, leaving the spot open for the incoming freshman.

A scramble to fill out the roster produced Starrett, who had been released from his commitment to Boston University.

“For me, with goalies, it’s nonnegotiable – if you’re a goalie for me, you’re our hardest worker in practice,” Serratore said. “That was a problem I had with Shane early on. That’s why Billy started out being our starter.”

It didn’t last, and 2016-17 wound up being Starrett’s breakout season, but Christopoulos had his moments. He was in net during a 5-4 overtime win over No. 5 Denver his freshman year, and earned the start again against the Pioneers on Nov. 25, 2016, making 39 saves in a 4-3 overtime loss. He also salvaged a tie against Western Michigan that November after Starrett gave up four goals and was pulled, and filled in when Starrett was hurt in a midseason series at Mercyhurst.

“It’s not like he’s never won before,” Serratore said. “Billy is not as athletic as Shane is, but he’s more positionally sound. He’s more of a traditional guy, plays his angles, doesn’t get himself in bad spots.

“Now the challenge is going to be inheriting a good team, and how is he going to handle that opportunity.”

Air Force was picked to finish first in the Atlantic Hockey Conference in the media and coaches’ polls and is ranked No. 17 in the country going into its season-opening series at Alaska-Fairbanks. It lost just three seniors and has the depth to replace them.

It’s the other departure that has some worried. But not the Falcons.

“Billy’s fully capable of providing us with everything we need,” senior defenseman Phil Boje said. “He works his butt off every day. It’s good to finally see him get rewarded for that.”

Christopoulos went 1-4-1 with a 2.79 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage in the hectic role of backup. He has the stability he’s missed. And – assuming it all goes well – Christopoulos should finally bring some stability to the team.

“All of us juniors just made our commitment (to the Air Force) last month, so we’re in it for the long haul now,” Christopoulos said. “We’re locked and loaded. I’m excited to be here for the next two years.”

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