Since Air Force joined Atlantic Hockey in the fall of 2006, the Falcons have won two regular season conference championships, and more importantly, five league playoff titles, which have given them an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Most of those years, the Falcons have not really looked like an NCAA team early in the season.
This year has been no different. Air Force stumbled out of the gate, going just 3-7-3 through November, which ended with a 5-4 home loss to conference foe Mercyhurst. Two days later, on December 2, the Falcons beat RIT 3-2 in overtime, igniting a 14-4-4 finish, which was enough to vault the team to second place in the final league standings. Now 17-11-7, the Falcons open their postseason with a quarterfinal playoff series against Canisius this weekend at Cadet Ice Arena.
"Somehow we always just hit our stride late in the season, and come into the playoffs playing our best hockey of the year," said junior defenseman Adam McKenzie.
Why is that? Well, it has an awful lot to do with Air Force head coach Frank Serratore. Now in his 16th year at the Academy, Serratore has perfected a recipe that conjures up some tasty hockey come February and March each year. Of course, Serratore would never admit this himself, so I went to associate head coach Mike Corbett for some answers.
"The biggest thing that he does is, he motivates them," Corbett said of Serratore. "The kids do a lot of it. You know what, we tighten up a lot of things as the year goes on. His biggest asset is his motivation. Sometimes it's not coaching anymore, it's strictly motivation. And I can attest to it. And that's one of the biggest things that our kids rely on."
Corbett is now in his 10th year as an assistant under Serratore, and played for him one year at the University of Denver. Corbett continued explaining some of the building blocks that the staff uses to get the team to improve as each season progresses, "Every year we do team building in the second half of the year. Most teams do it early; we do it in the second half of the year. And I do that, and it's more of a short-term goal. We always have that lull, that four-game stretch, or if we go 0-4-2. And then we get the kids together, and we kind of recalculate them. I kinda mediate it. And it's them. We tell them, 'It doesn't matter what we say. It's you guys.' We know where we wanna be. We never talk about where we wanna be. It's the process. It's just the process of getting there."
That process has been golden in recent years. Air Force upset Michigan in one of those NCAA years, and had near misses against Minnesota and Vermont on two other trips to the big hockey dance.
Corbett went on, "It's a lot easier for them to hold each other accountable. And Frank buys into it too. And he leads the charge on it, and like a good team, we just come together like this. And the best thing about it is, pure accountability is that much better. And now Frank pushes that rally cry a step further, and a step further. He's such a great asset for our team."
Corbett finished with one statement that lumps the Academy cadets in with other student-athletes. " Let's be honest," he said, "division I athletes want to be pushed."
So, will that tried and true formula create more playoff magic again this year? We'll find out starting Friday. The series with Canisius is best two-of-three, with all games, including Sunday if necessary, facing off at 7pm MT at Cadet Ice Arena. The winner of the series will advance to the Atlantic Hockey final four the following weekend in Rochester, NY.
Other Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal matchups find league champion and 15th-ranked Niagara hosting RIT, Mercyhurst visiting Holy Cross, and Robert Morris traveling to Connecticut.
Colorado College will open their Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs with a best-of-three series at Denver. Game one will face off at 7:30 pm Friday at Magness Arena in Denver.