BRIDGEPORT — As three-time defending Atlantic Hockey Association Tournament champions, the No. 18 Air Force Falcons have grown accustomed, over the past couple years, to the NCAA Tournament. Now they look to experience more than just the opening game of the 16-team national tournament.
Never having previously qualified for the postseason prior to the 2006-’07 season, the Falcons (27-10-2) received a No. 4 seed for the third consecutive season and will look to get over the first-round hump when they battle first-seeded Michigan (29-11) today at 3:30 p.m. in the East Regional’s opening game.
The Falcons are making the longest trek to Bridgeport out of the four squads — 1,900 miles in all — but they are familiar with the area. Earlier this season the team played at Sacred Heart and stayed at the same hotel they are in for this tournament. The team also played at UConn, Quinnipiac and Yale later in the season.
The trip to New Haven on Jan. 4 culminated in a 3-2 loss for the Falcons, but before the team can worry about a possible second-round matchup against the Bulldogs, it will have to pull off the biggest win in program history.
And with this team, which has won a school-record 27 games so far this season, head coach Frank Serratore thinks this is the best opportunity.
“This group of young men have accomplished a lot at the Air Force Academy,” Serratore said. “They’ve put the hockey program on the map, legitimately on the map.”
In both of its appearances in the NCAA Tournament over the past two seasons, the Falcons nearly played spoiler as a fourth seed. In 2007, Air Force led the overall top-seed in the tournament, Minnesota, 3-1 in the third period before the Golden Gophers mounted a comeback to win 4-3. Last season, the Falcons had Miami (Ohio) against the ropes before the Redhawks tied the game midway through the third period and advanced to the second round in overtime.
While the Wolverines are taking a businesslike approach to the tournament, Air Force is a loose squad, one that is just happy to get another opportunity to make a run in March.
“We’re looking forward to get another chance,” senior forward Brent Olson said. “We’re just going to go out there, take our swings and have the chips fall where they may.”
At the same time, the Falcons don’t want to make a cross-country trip to bow out after 60 minutes yet again. And to survive and advance, Air Force will need to deal with the strength and outstanding speed that a talented team such as Michigan boasts.
“I watched their film last night and I couldn’t sleep,” Serratore admitted. “Michigan has extraordinary speed and skill for a college team. You can’t stop Michigan’s speed with the way the new rules are, the only thing you can hope to do is contain it.”
Hobey Baker Award Finalist Jacques Lamoureux, the nation’s leading goal scorer with 32, leads a Falcon attack that ranks fourth nationally in goals per game and is seventh on the power play. In net, junior goaltender Andrew Volkening heads a defense that is seventh in the country in goals allowed.
To pull off the upset and show they are legitimate contenders, the Falcons will need to be on point in all facets of their game.
“When you look back at what we have accomplished as a group the last three years, if we have some unfinished business it’s finding a way to slay Goliath,” Serratore said.