Air Force had advanced to the Atlantic Hockey final four all six previous seasons since they joined the league in the fall of 2006. But that run has ended. A fluke goal 1:08 into overtime gave Canisius a 4-3 win on Saturday, and a two-game sweep of the quarterfinal series. The Falcons finish the year at 17-13-7, and the Golden Griffins advance to Rochester, NY next week with a 17-18-5 mark.
In the overtime, Canisius defenseman Duncan McKellar took a shot from just above the left circle. The puck was deflected into the air, and it came down and hit the back of the left pad of Falcon goalie Jason Torf, and trickled across the goal line, to the stunned disbelief of the crowd at Cadet Ice Arena. The winning goal capped a comeback for the Griffins, who were down 3-1 until late in the second period.
As was the case Friday night, Canisius scored first. Preston Shupe outworked the Falcons for a loose puck, and put it past Torf at the 6:13 mark of the first period. But from that point on, Air Force dominated the game, winning just about every battle, from puck possession, to shots on goal, to faceoffs. It just didn't translate into a win at the end of the night.
Ben Carey brought the Falcons even at 18:04 of the first, when he slid the puck into an open net off a centering feed from John Kruse. The first period ended with the 1-1 score, in spite of a 22-10 shot advantage for the Falcons, including 10 shots on three power play chances.
In the second, two goals by defenseman Adam McKenzie (appropriately, on the eve of St. Patrick's Day) gave the Falcons their 3-1 lead. The first came from the left point at 2:21, on a high shot that beat Canisius goalie Tony Capobianco glove side. The second came from
just inside the center blue line on a power play at 11:25.
At that point, the Falcons seemed to be cruising, but a big moment came with 3:27 left in the period, when Kyle Gibbons scored off a pass from the rear boards by Patrick Sullivan. "It was obviously a big moment, 'cause it got us within one," said Canisius head coach Dave Smith.
The score remained 3-2 Falcons until very late in the third period. Air Force's best chance to add to its lead came with just over eight minutes left. At that point Cole Gunner skated in on a break and hit the crossbar. Kyle DeLaurell's attempt off the rebound was stopped by Capobianco. The Griffins then tied the score when Matthew Grazen beat Torf short side with a shot from low in the right circle with 1:58 remaining in regulation. Heading to the overtime, Air Force had outshot Canisius 53-24, with 19 shots on six power play chances. But that was all meaningless after McKellar's attempt somehow found its way into the net in the overtime.
Canisius became just the second team in the history of Atlantic Hockey to win a best-of-three playoff series on the road. The first--Canisius against Mercyhurst in 2010. (Mercyhurst has a chance to duplicate that feat at Holy Cross on Sunday night.) The Griffins have now won six games in a row heading into the conference final four next weekend. For Air Force, it was just their second loss against thirteen wins in playoff elimination games since joining Atlantic Hockey. The team finished the year with a 2-9 record in one-goal games.
For the weekend, Capobianco made 90 saves in the two games. "He is a special goaltender, but he is not the only piece that we have," Smith said. "We didn't win it with beauty. We didn't win it with skill. We won it with heart and grit and determination." Asked about his team ending Air Force's run of trips to the finals, Smith added, "It gives a little extra feeling in the celebration. To come on the road, into a tough building, and Air Force played well, we had to dig deep. Front and center for us was attitude and resiliency. It takes that sort of effort to unseat the champion."
Air Force head coach Frank Serratore summed things up this way, "They found a way to get that second goal. I got a sick feeling in my stomach, when Cole Gunner on the breakaway, hits the crossbar. We knew these guys were going to be tough. Obviously their goalie is a big part of that. We gotta give them credit for perservering."
In other Atlantic Hockey action, Niagara and Connecticut wrapped up their quarterfinal series with home sweeps. Niagara defeated RIT 3-2 and 2-1. Connecticut downed Robert Morris 4-1 and 4-3. In the other matchup, Mercyhurst will play Holy Cross in a deciding game on Sunday night. Mercyhurst won the opener 3-2, and Holy Cross won game two by that same score. Thus far, seven of the eight contests have been decided by one game, attesting to the balance that has been evident in the conference all season.
Archie Skalbeck scored the go-ahead goal at the 5:58 mark of the second period, and it was enough to propel Colorado College to a 2-1 win at Denver, evening that WCHA first-round series at one game apiece. Denver outshot the Tigers 42-22, but Joe Howe made the two goals stand up. The deciding game will be Sunday night at Magness Arena, starting at 7 pm. The winner earns a berth in the WCHA final five next weekend in St. Paul, MN.