Season preview: Falcons ready for takeoff; how high will they go?

Photo courtesy of Paat Kelly and Air Force Athletics

Air Force is entering its 50th season on a high note.

The Falcons won an NCAA Tournament game for only the second time in their history when they beat Western Michigan, and they came close to upsetting No. 2 Harvard in the Elite Eight.

Their 27 wins were the second most in school history and came despite a rash of injuries that at times had them down the six healthy defensemen and only one extra forward. All of the players who sustained season-ending injuries are back, as are 15 upperclassmen, all of whom should play regularly. The return the most points and are tied for the most returning goals in Division.

Here are three keys to the Falcons repeating last season’s success and possibly taking it a step further … to the Frozen Four.

#1 – Stick to the plan

If there is one hallmark of the Falcons’ game, it’s that they attack in waves, line after line. The onslaught of forwards is complemented by a defense that not only participates in the offense but frequently initiates it. Two-way play is a must at the Academy.

The Falcons are set up to contend for an NCAA spot again because they return all but four players from last season – forwards A.J. Reid and Tyler Rostenkowski, defenseman Johnny Hrabovsky and goaltender Shane Starrett, who left the Academy after his sophomore year to sign with the Edmonton Oilers.

“The biggest thing is we lost four players – only four,” coach Frank Serratore said. “We lost three seniors but the key to the whole deal is we lost the straw that stirs the drink. Starrett was our best player, so we’ve got to replace him. In terms of our team, we’ll have a better team in front of our goaltender this year than we had in front of Starrett last year.

Jordan Himley topped the Falcons with 22 goals and 37 points last season. Photo courtesy of Paat Kelly, Pengo Sports

“We expect everybody to take a step. Our plan is to win with our depth. We’ve got more than five lines, we’ve got 10 defensemen and we’ve got four goalies (headed by junior Billy Christopoulos) – none of them are proven. Billy’s got experience but we’ve got legit experience at every (other) position.”

The Falcons’ style should help with the transition in net, junior defenseman Matt Koch said, but there is one thing he and his teammates have to guard against – complacency.

“First of all, we can’t be relaxed – don’t take anyone for granted,” the junior said. “Our non-conference schedule is nowhere near what it was last year (with Ohio State and Boston College right off the bat and a trip to Western Michigan). Our goal is we need to win those games and so let’s not take those for granted.

“Then it’s team defense. Look for us to not be giving up that many goals, not giving up that many shots, just be outworking teams. I think the shots will be very skewed in favor of us (because of) the way we play team defense. We block a lot of shots and our forwards can skate like the wind.”

That allows the Falcons to aggressively forecheck opponents, as was on display in their exhibition game Monday night against Lethbridge. Time and again, AFA forced the Pronghorns to resort to risky cross-ice passes on breakouts and created turnovers either because of its speed, its defensive positioning and stick work, or both.

“It’s a balance, we have to stay aggressive but play within our system,” junior center Evan Feno said. “We get a lot of shots on net by working as a team.”

Christopoulos, who will be closely watched, was matter of fact about his – and his team’s – approach.

“Just don’t stay too high,” the junior goalie said. “Last year we had an unreal season but it’s a new year. We can’t just think we’re going to come in and do the same thing just because we have a lot of returning guys. I think our success the past few years is because a lot of guys bought in.

“We’re not a team of one line of superstars, we’re four lines deep, six defensemen, four goalies, so just keep the same mentality – everybody buying in and doing their job and hopefully we can have another good run like that.”

Added Koch, “We have to use our work ethic to run teams down and ultimately beat them in the end.”

The Falcons’ 15 upperclassmen include eight seniors, and all 15 likely will play regularly. There should be more than enough experience to keep things on an even keel.

“Our juniors and seniors have been together three years,” senior assistant captain Erik Baskin said. “We’re used to each other. The four seniors who aren’t wearing letters are just as much leaders as the four of us who are.”

Focus shouldn’t be a problem for this group, and it will need it given several players said the next goal is to take the proverbial next step and reach the Frozen Four for the first time in program history.

#2 – Rankings are nice but outcomes are determined on ice

Before there can be much talk about the Frozen Four, however, the Falcons will face what will be an increasingly challenging task – winning consecutive Atlantic Hockey tournaments to ensure they can get to the NCAA Tournament.

Despite the league’s growing strength, it still doesn’t get the recognition nationally that power conferences do. That means two of the precious 16 NCAA bids going to AHC teams is improbable even though AHC teams have reached the Elite Eight four times since 2009 (Air Force 2017 and 2009), RIT (2015 and 2010) and even the Frozen Four once (RIT, 2010).

Further complicating things for the Falcons is there are very few AHC teams that enter the season having sustained major personnel losses, so the Falcons’ situation isn’t unique.

“Look at our league – we have 11 teams, and on paper in my opinion 10 of the 11 look to be better this year than they were last year,” said Serratore. “Part of that is we’ve increased the scholarships in our league. The facilities have improved – Canisius has a new building, RIT has a new building, AIC is playing in the Springfield Civic Center, Sacred Heart is playing in Bridgeport and Bentley has a new arena they’re opening this year. So all the programs are moving forward.

“Even considering graduations 10 of the 11 teams appear to be stronger than they were last year. … There will be more teams than ever that have a chance to win in March.”

Given it’s likely the 11 teams are playing for one NCAA spot, which the Falcons earned last spring, also makes the task of returning more difficult, Feno said.

“We’re not going to sneak up on anybody,” he said. “We’re going to have to bring our best game because everyone wants to beat us.”

If anything, reaching the NCAA Tournament – and enjoying some success in it – last season has the Falcons hungrier.

“It’s huge,” Serratore said. “The NCAA Tournament is like an addictive drug. Once you’ve been there, there is nothing you want more than to get back there again. And that’s what’s in our locker room now. You can tell guys what it’s like, but until you’ve been there you don’t really know.”

Koch said the Falcons could have played better at the AHC tournament, where they scored just three goals in two games, but were bailed out by Starrett’s outstanding play. The goalie allowed one goal in two games, shutting out Army West Point in the semifinal.

The NCAA Tournament brought a fresh start, and the Falcons relished it.

“We had fun with it,” Koch said. “Being able to win that first game … was great. Everyone’s experience was unbelievable.

“Being able to taste the NCAA Tournament for once just gives us that taste in our mouth – we want to get back.”

That goal is clear, Baskin said, but it has been business been usual for his class and the juniors. That familiarity has helped the underclassmen assimilate into the program, he added.

“All the returners on the team have been to the NCAA Tournament now. We’ve got that in our back pocket now, that type of experience,” he said. “Obviously we’re striving to get back there and eventually get over that next hurdle to the Frozen Four. Although the bar is higher, we can’t get too caught up in the hype and expectations. We’re just trying to focus on practicing right and the first game, and all that stuff will take care of itself.”

Photo courtesy of Air Force Athletics

#3 – How does the goaltending situation shake out?

Most nights the defense will have six upperclassmen in it. Nine of the top 10 scorers at forward are back. Goaltending is the one area of change.

Christopoulos played the entire exhibition game against Lethbridge. Freshman Zach LaRocque was the only reserve goalie who dressed. It’s fair to deduce they are options one and two to replace Starrett at this point.

The job appears to be Christopoulos’, but LaRocque has impressed and likely will play some games. How many will be determined by how Christopoulos adapts to the starter’s role.

Serratore, a former goalie, said the adjustment to going from being a capable backup to the man, particularly in a program with postseason aspirations is easier for some than others. How will it work out at Air Force?

“Some can do it, some can’t. You never know until you throw them in there,” the coach said. “Bill has won some big games for us. He beat Denver his first year here. He won a big game at Mercyhurst last year when Starrett was injured. When Starrett struggled at Western Michigan, he came in and salvaged a tie for us on Friday night.

“It’s not like Bill has never won before. He’s going to get the chance. He’s ready for it. He’s going to get the opportunity to go back to back. And we’ve got confidence in youngsters like LaRocque and (Will) Ulrich.”

Christopoulos played less last season than he did as a freshman, but his numbers were better (2.79 goals-against average and .901 save percentage). In nine appearances he allowed more than two goals just three times. What hurt his record was the Falcons scored 17 goals when he was in the game.

His teammates have the utmost confidence in him.

“Bill’s a legit goalie,” said Koch, his road roommate. “In the weight room, he’s one of the hardest workers. On the ice, probably the hardest worker. I think everyone has confidence in him, we just want him to go out and do what he’s capable of doing, and we think that’s a lot. We want him to succeed.”

Koch said another of the team’s emphases this offseason has been to limit the clean looks opponents get on net. That defensive approach should keep Christopoulos from facing a shooting gallery very often.

“As a defenseman, I want to focus on helping Bill out, picking up guys, getting the puck out of the zone, making sure he’s seeing shots, making sure we’re blocking shots,” Koch said. “It’s not just on him, it’s on all of the defense.”

Where as Starrett’s height and athleticism allowed him to make show-stopping saves, several Falcons players said Christopoulos’ style – while different – will be equally effective because of his consistency and tenacity.

“People don’t give him enough credit for how good he is,” Feno said. “He’s very reliable, very consistent in goal. I think we’ll play confidently in front of him.

“He’s really good down low because he’s got such great flexibility. It’s hard to get the puck around him, and he reacts to shots quicker than most goalies. The other thing is he works extremely hard.”

So, what will it take for the Falcons’ to complete their mission?

“The key to take that next step is to beat a team like Harvard,” Baskin said. “We’ve been right there, so maybe take some of the experiences we’ve had, being nervous playing in the tournament, the mental aspects of being confident we belong there. We were confident, but it’s tough when we’ve never been there before.

“The key is using our experience and age and relying on our previous experience when we hopefully get to that stage and hopefully get over that hump.”

It seems like many of the ingredients are in place for an exciting season.

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