Air Force Academy hockey

Air Force celebrates a goal against Sacred Heart Friday, Nov. 19, 2021 at the Cadet Ice Arena. The Falcons won 3-2. (photo courtesy Russ Backer)

Last weekend the power play was Air Force’s bitter enemy, but on Friday, the two greeted each other as old friends.

And it was a power-play goal that made the difference.

With 2:38 left on the clock, Air Force and Sacred Heart looked destined for extra time, but instead, as Falcons coach Frank Serratore put it, “The puck found its way to the right guy’s stick.”

That guy was Will Gavin, who punched it in, giving him seven goals on the season, and Air Force a 3-2 come-from-behind victory at Cadet Ice Arena.

“There was just a little scrum in the corner, and Sam Brennan banged it out,” Gavin said. “I had a full lane to the net, so it was nice to get that one.”

In Air Force’s previous series against Bentley, the Falcons went 0-12 on the power play. So, this week in practice that was their focus.

The extra attention paid off, as Air Force scored two of its goals on the power play, and the third on a delayed penalty, while also killing all six of Sacred Hearts power-play attempts.

“We definitely won the special teams battle,” Serratore said. “I wish we would have gotten a few more clears when we had the opportunity. We had to play in our zone far too much, but we found a way to get two power-play goals, and that’s a good sign.”

The first score of the game happened quickly, with just 4:37 off the clock.

After some crafty back-and-forth passing behind the Sacred Heart net that had goaltender Justin Robbins’ head on a swivel, Air Force scored on the first power play of the game. Luke Rowe fired a shot from the circle that slipped past Robbins and into the net, giving AFA a 1-0 lead with 4:37 gone in the opening period.

Air Force nearly escaped into the first intermission with a one-goal lead. Instead, Sacred Heart put together a demoralizing 1:57, and the Falcons skated off the ice down a score.

With just under two minutes left in the period, two Falcons rushed for a loose puck, but it found the stick of a Pioneer, and Kevin Lombardi fired a one-timer into the net.

The Falcons didn’t even have a chance to catch their breath before the red lights atop the goal lit up once more. This time, on a shot from Ryan Steele, assisted by John Jaworski.

“When we turn pucks over in our zone, we are out of our structure,” Serratore said of the quick scores by Sacred Heart. “When we turn them over in the neutral zone, we are out of our structure. We’ve got to get pucks out, and we’ve got to protect the puck.”

It was a quick turn of the tides for the Pioneers, but Air Force took its time mounting a comeback.

In the second frame, Air Force saved the action for the closing minutes.

After 18 minutes ticked off the clock, Willie Reim out-skated a Pioneer and tracked down a pass from Brandon Koch. He then found a streaking Jacob Marti who finished the goal in front of the net.

The scored tied things at 2-2, and salvaged a relatively uneventful period. Air Force had nine shots in the frame, but prior to Marti’s goal, none gave Robbins much trouble. The Sacred Heart net minder had eight saves in the period, and 20 on the game.

Meanwhile, Air Force’s Alex Schilling was steady in the net. Other than the two quick goals in the second, he came up with saves at the right time, including 11 in the final frame, for 23 on the game.

As for the immense improvement on the power play, Gavin is taking his game winner and keeping tightlipped about what the Falcons got up to in practice.

“I don’t want to discuss everything,” he said with a smile. “We’ve got to keep our secrets, but it’s been working, so we are going to keep doing it.”

Best not to give too much away, especially considering Air Force has three more games to play against Sacred Heart.

The unusual four-game series, which takes place over five days, came about after COVID-19 prevented Sacred Heart from coming to Cadet Ice Arena last season.

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