Net gains give Falcons a fighting chance in NCAA Tournament

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Good-natured Shane Starrett has kept the Falcons well covered in net in each of his two seasons at the Academy. Photo courtesy of Paat Kelly, Air Force Athletics

If the third time is to be the charm for Air Force, then you can bet No. 40 will have a lot to do with that.

When the No. 15 Falcons play No. 8 Western Michigan on Friday in an NCAA East Regional semifinal at Providence, R.I., the Falcons’ most important player will be the one who has emerged as one of the best in Division I hockey at his position – goaltender Shane Starrett.

The sophomore, who is one of 10 semifinalists for the Mike Richter Award, has been on an incredible run since December, and is reason No. 1 why the Falcons have an excellent chance to pull rank on a Broncos team that they tied and lost to in Kalamazoo, Mich., in November.

Starrett gave up just two goals in four Atlantic Hockey playoff games, and he has allowed as many as three goals just three times since Dec. 9 – a span of 22 appearances. More impressive, he has allowed no goals five times and one goal eight times during that stretch. After being selected the AHC rookie of the year and making the all-AHC first team, his numbers this season are actually better (.928 save percentage to .924, 1.90 GAA to 1.92 and 25 wins to 16).

Co-captain Johnny Hrabovsky said he and his fellow defensemen’s jobs are made immeasurably easier by the 6-foot-5 Starrett.

“With Shane in net I know he’s going to make the first save pretty much 100 percent of the time so now all I have to worry about isn’t really necessarily trying to block a lot of shots,” Hrabovsky said. “Don’t give them an easy back door goal, don’t give them an easy rebound.”

After a 10-game stretch in which the Falcons scored three or more goals in 9 of 10 games, the offense has taken an extended spring break. In their past six games they’ve exceeded two goals just twice. That won’t get it done going forward, junior forward Tyler Ledford said.

“We have one of the best goalies in the nation. We have a very good team defense and system,” he said. “We didn’t have enough in the (AHC) championship game. We’ve been relying on our team defense and goaltending for a long time. We’re going to keep riding it, but we want to do more.”

Air Force, which enjoyed wide shots on goal advantages most nights during the second half the season, was outshot by six and 11 shots in the AHC semifinals, not that Starrett minded.

“It keeps you in a rhythm,” he said. “When you get 12 shots in a game, like the Rober Morris goalie, you lose focus. When I was getting all those shots, I could feel I was going to have a good game.”

One could argue that part of the reason Starrett’s results have been so consistently good is his outlook is so consistently upbeat, not always a given in the goalie world. You might have seen the dance number he and teammates Evan Feno and Jordan Himley uncork after Air Force victories.

“I just go out and say it’s just a game in the end. … I just go out and have some fun and play,” Starrett said. “(Making the NCAA Tournament) is a great feeling. You always want to make it here when you play college hockey.

“I could say I’m the first in my family to make it. Technically my brother (Beau, a forward at Cornell) didn’t make it until Sunday with an at-large bid, so I’ll let him hear that.”

That would be the same brother who flattened Starrett during a scrimmage at the Chicago Blackhawks prospect camp over the summer. Shane joked it was his birthday present.

The Falcons know who has their back, but they feel a strong compulsion to help him out. Their survival this weekend might depend on it

“When we’re playing our best we don’t have to rely on Shane,” Hrabovsky said. “He just has to make a couple easier saves for him. The rest of the game is us getting up ice, generating the pace of play. Stay aggressive, trust yourselves, make plays. Not get one goal and rely on Shane to get 40 saves. We can’t sit back on a one-goal lead.”

But if the Falcons find themselves in that situation, they know their goaltender will take it in stride and keep stopping pucks.

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