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The Denver Pioneers defeated the Air Force Falcons 4-1 in men's ice hockey on Friday, October 12, 2018 at Cadet Ice Arena. Photo by Isaiah J. Downing

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What could have been a conspicuous absence instead became a rallying point.

Billy Christopoulos, who had started 51 straight games, was too ill to play, so Zach LaRocque entered and made 15 saves and Air Force won his first collegiate start over Bentley on Friday night.

“Any time you have the opportunity to give the guy a little bit of glory, you do it, because he’s in the same locker room as you,” forward Walker Sommer said. “You want to give him a little memory.”

It was a third straight 4-2 win helped along by No. 42, as Sommer’s second-period breakaway goal held up as the game winner. The sophomore took a long feed from Jake Levin and raced in alone from the blue line. He beat Bentley’s Aidan Pelino and took the net with him.

“Jake Levin, he’s been an absolute presence on the blue line,” Sommer said. “It was a beautiful play and I had to bury that one for him.”

The Falcons doubled their first-period goal output through eight games on Friday night. On the first goal, Evan Feno took advantage of some traffic in front of Pelino on a 5-on-3 and sank his fourth of the season, three of which came on the power play.

Later in the period, Evan Giesler wedged one behind Pelino. He and two teammates crashed the net but the deed was done, the goal stood on review and the Falcons went up 2-0.

The second period was the weakest of the three for the Falcons (5-4-0, 5-2-0 AHC) but they never fell behind. Luke Santerno got Bentley within one, but Sommer retaliated 2:38 later. Drew Callin cut into the Air Force lead again shortly afterward, tapping in a feed at the crease for a goal LaRocque would probably like back.

But overall, the sophomore goaltender whose appearances have been few and far between was solid and the defense had extra jump in front of him.

“Having our backup goalie, find a way to win for him, that’s going to do a lot for that young man’s confidence,” Serratore said. “There’s not a whole lot of negatives about it. … If we could replicate that Saturday I’d take it in a heartbeat.”

Air Force made the 3-2 lead stand up until Feno chipped in an empty-netter from well behind his own blue line with 20 seconds left in the game.

The Falcons have won four straight.

Even without co-captain Matt Serratore and a starting goalie who led the nation in minutes played last season, the team continued the climb its been on ever since being shaken up in its last home opener, a shutout at the hands of Niagara.

“Overall, we’re making great strides,” senior Matt Koch said. “Just got to keep it up, don’t get complacent.”

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