The Niagara Purple Eagles clinched first place in Atlantic Hockey weeks ago. They had edged Air Force 4-3 in an earlier meeting on Jan. 5. But this weekend at Cadet Ice Arena all was different. The Falcons overwhelmed NU 6-1 on Saturday, following a 5-2 win on Friday. The two wins clinched second place in the conference for Air Force, giving them a bye in next week's league playoffs, and setting up a possible rematch with Niagara in the conference championship game in three weeks.
"If we could bottle this, you know, we put in a dominating performance here," coach Frank Serratore said. "The guys played very well against, obviously, a very good opponent."
Niagara came into the weekend ranked #14, and were in the top five in the country in a number of defensive categories. Yet the Falcons lit them up for 11 goals, and fired 97 shots on goal in the two games.
Friday night, Niagara came out strong and took a 2-0 lead in the first period, and led 2-1 after one. In the second, Air Force started showing what they were capable of, dominating the session and tying the game. Three goals in the third gave the Falcons the 5-2 win.
On Saturday it was all Falcons from the get-go. John Kruse and Ben Persian scored goals twelve seconds apart late in the first period for a 2-0 Falcon advantage. Kyle DeLaurell backhanded his own rebound in for a 3-0 lead 3:40 into the second. After a Niagara goal, Chad Demers tallied with a severe backhand shot from the left side of the slot, and the middle frame ended with the Falcons up 4-1. In the third, Adam McKenzie, who already had three assists, added a power play goal, and Persian scored again on a breakaway to complete the 6-1 route.
"Everything just went my way," McKenzie said. "I don't know, I just played hard. It's funny, both of the last two years, in the first half I haven't had many points. Second half, I don't know, things started to click." McKenzie, a junior, came into the night with 14 points, but came out with 18 for the year, and 55 for his career.
So, as has been the case for the past six years, Air Force is playing it's best hockey entering the postseason. "It just all came together," Serratore said. "I've been saying it all along, this team hadn't played its best hockey yet. This is as good as we can play. It we can maintain that, it's going to plenty good enough."
Joining Air Force and Niagara with first-round byes in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs are Holy Cross and Connecticut. Matchups for next week are as follows: Sacred Heart at Robert Morris, Army at Mercyhurst, Bentley at Canisius, and American International at Rochester Tech. The Falcons will host a quarterfinal series beginning Friday, March 15. If there are no upsets next week, that opponent will be Canisius.
Colorado College was officially eliminated from having home-ice in the postseason after losing to Minnesota State 7-2 on Saturday night at World Arena. The Maverics scored three power play goals in a 50-second span late in the second period, giving them a 5-1 lead. The Tigers conclude their regular season next weekend at Michigan Tech, with both games starting at 5 pm MT.