SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Air Force has life in the bracket of death.
Air Force goaltender Billy Christopoulos led the Falcons to their biggest NCAA Tournament upset to date, a 4-1 win over overall No. 1 seed St. Cloud State.
Christopoulos made 40 saves, several of which were spectacular. Colorado Springs native Tyler Ledford scored twice and Jordan Himley and Kyle Haak added empty-net goals on Friday afternoon.
Air Force will play Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN2, 1300 AM) for a trip to the Frozen Four. It would be Air Force’s first appearance.
The West Regional was dubbed the “Minnesota Bracket of Death” by Falcons coach Frank Serratore and others this week. Air Force appeared to be a spare part in a strategic arrangement.
But the Falcons became just the second 16th seed to take down No. 1.
“St. Cloud is one hell of a hockey team,” Serratore said. “Everything that needed to go our way went our way. To win, you’ve gotta be good, and we’re good. But you also need to be a little bit lucky.
“We got some fortunate bounces. That’s hockey.”
They were also fortunate to have the goaltender Serratore calls “Billy the Greek.” During the first period, Christopoulos hit the splits to stop a trailing Husky, drawing loud cheers and keeping the game scoreless.
Ledford took a high swing on his first goal off a redirection and officials reviewed it to see if his stick was above the crossbar, but the call on the ice stood. Air Force took a 1-0 lead 2:57 into the second period.
There was no doubting Ledford’s second, a deft deflection of a Matt Koch shot 4:26 later. Looking for the hat trick, Ledford put a few moves on David Hrenak on a breakaway but met the goaltender’s leg pad.
The senior has been playing with organizations Serratore founded or coached off and on since he was 12.
“Leddy’s always been a gamer,” Serratore said. “He just lives and breathes hockey.”
St. Cloud State put Air Force on its heels midway through the second period, but the reward came too late. Patrick Newell, streaking up the side, hit Blake Lizotte with a centering pass and the freshman beat past Christopoulos from close in to make it 2-1 late in the third period.
Air Force blocked 29 shots to make the lead stand up, led by Phil Boje’s nine, which tied a career high.
“That’s incredible,” St. Cloud State forward Robby Jackson said. “They’re diving, putting their throats in front of pucks on multiple occasions. We just couldn’t get anything through.”
Air Force sealed the win with a fluky empty-netter. Hrenak was halfway to the bench for the extra attacker when Himley started in on a 2-on-1 with Matt Serratore. Hrenak scrambled back, but Himley was faster.
Christopoulos was almost the second goaltender to shut out St. Cloud State this season. He has allowed three goals in his past five games.
“He’s been the backbone of our team over the last month - the whole season, really,” Matt Serratore said. “He’s calm, he’s collected, consistent. Guys have the utmost faith in him and when you’re playing with a goalie like that, it helps all other aspects of your game.”
If Air Force can stave off death one more day, it’s headed to college hockey’s biggest stage in two weeks.
Note: Follow Gazette reporter Kate Shefte on Twitter for updates during the Air Force-St. Cloud State game. Mobile readers can see tweets by scrolling to the bottom of this article; desktop readers can see tweets to the right.
Air Force faced off against the NCAA hockey tournament bracket’s top seed St. Cloud State in a West Regional semifinal Friday afternoon.
The Falcons and Huskies were scoreless after the first period, but Colorado Springs native Tyler Ledford scored with 17:03 left in the second period to give Air Force a 1-0 lead. Ledford batted the puck out of the air after forcing a St. Cloud State turnover.
Air Force made it 2-0 on a Ledford deflection with 13:31 left in the second period. Again, the Falcons forced a St. Cloud State turnover in the Huskies' zone.
The Falcons held their two-goal lead going into the third period before St. Cloud State cut the deficit to 2-1 with 2:51 remaining on a Blake Lizotte.
But Jordan Himley gave Air Force a 3-1.
AFA is 2-6 all-time in the NCAA tournament and 0-3 against top overall seeds.2007: 4-3 loss to No. 1 overall seed Minnesota2008: 3-2 OT loss to No. 2 overall seed Miami2009: 2-0 win over No. 3 overall seed Michigan; 3-2 2OT loss to Vermont2011: 2-1 OT loss to No. 1 overall seed Yale2012: 2-0 loss to No. 1 overall seed Boston College2017: 5-4 win over Western Michigan; 3-2 loss to Harvard in regional final
If the Falcons win, they face either Minnesota State-Mankato or Minnesota-Duluth for a berth in the Frozen Four.
Air Force may be the only school outside of Minnesota in the West Bracket of the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t make the Falcons outsiders. Seven Falcons, and their head coach, are from the North Star State.
Air Force automatically qualified for the NCAA tournament a second straight year after winning the Atlantic Hockey Conference tournament.NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Quarterfinal schedule
Air Force (4) vs. Minnesota Duluth (3) - Saturday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2Frozen Four
Semifinals April 5 and championship game April 7