The battle was fought valiantly for the final two periods, but in the end No. 19 Air Force was outflanked by a determined Army West Point team Friday night.
The visiting Black Knights scored two third-period power-play goals en route to a 3-2 Atlantic Hockey Conference victory.
Already down two of their top three centers, the Falcons (5-3-1, 1-2 AHC) lost the third – junior Kyle Haak, who was second on the team in scoring a season ago – to a lower-body injury just seven seconds after Evan Giesler tied the score at 1 early in the third period.
“I liked the spirit of the team,” AFA coach Frank Serratore said. “We played hard in the second and third periods. We have to learn how to win with this new dynamic.
“No one is going to use this as an excuse, but I’ve never seen anything like this. We started the season with 18 forwards and we’re down to 11.”
The loss of Haak, coupled with previous injuries to centers Evan Feno and Tyler Ledford removes three of the Falcons’ top six penalty killers, and it showed. Boasting Division I’s top penalty kill a season ago, Air Force killed just one of three chances by Army (4-3, 4-3 AHC).
Defenseman Dalton MacAfee gave the Black Knights a 2-1 lead just 2:34 after Giesler had tied after receiving a nice backdoor feed from Brady Tomlak. Defense partner Alex Wilkinson passed the puck from the outside edge of the right circle to MacAfee, who was alone at the left point. His slap shot beat a screened Billy Christopoulos (13 saves).
Six minutes later, Matt Serratore tied it again on a great individual effort. He collected a pass from Tomlak at the top of the right circle, walked in toward Cole Bruns (28 saves) and beat the Army goalie high the blocker side.
But a cross-checking penalty on Tomlak gave the Black Knights another man-advantage, and Michael Wilson scored at the left post with 6:37 to go after Wilkinson’s shot from near the middle of the blue line.
“Army protects the house well,” Frank Serratore said. “They are one of those teams you don’t want to chase.”
The wild third period contrasted sharply with the first two, when only Wilson’s finish after an end-to-end rush down the left wing dented the scoreboard.
Wilson stole the puck in the Falcons’ offensive zone and went unfettered into the left circle, where he launched a shot that found the far side of the net, under Christopoulos’ glove arm.
Air Force tightened up considerably on defense and outshot Army, 11-3, in the second period. The Falcons ended up with a 30-16 shots edge but lost for the first time in the past seven meetings at Cadet Arena between the teams.
“We battled back, which was a great thing,” Matt Serratore said. “They got the last goal, and that’s something we’ve got to improve upon, and we’ve got to be better on the kill tomorrow.
“We had a lot of young guys in the lineup who were getting a feel for the series. We didn’t like the way we were playing (in the first period), we felt like it wasn’t our kind of hockey. In the second period I thought we responded really well. I thought we pushed the pace.
“I’m proud of how the guys stepped up. We just need to be better and not get out special teamed tomorrow.”
The Falcons’ injury list continues to grow. In addition to centers Feno (ACL, out of the year) and Ledford (lower body), freshman forward Max Harper (undisclosed), senior defenseman Jonathan Kopacka (upper body), senior forward Ben Kucera (concussion) and freshman forward Isaac Thiesen (undisclosed) are ailing. In addition, freshman forward Shawn Knowlton underwent shoulder surgery on Friday.
“We had three guys in the lineup we never thought would play until next year,” Frank Serratore said. “We’ve got to figure out who’s going to take face-offs and who’s going to kill penalties.”
When the season started, the Falcons’ top four centers were Haak, Ledford, Feno and Tomlak. Matt Pulver was moved to the middle after Ledford’s injury, and Erich Jaeger has gone from in and out of the lineup to a mainstay. The question begs now, who will be the fourth center?
First things first, the Falcons will have to determine which defenseman to move up to forward so they can ice four full lines Saturday night.
AFA’s three stars
- Matt Serratore. Scored the second tying goal on a great individual effort, and was among the Falcons’ best defenders.
- Brady Tomlak. Set up both goals and became a mainstay in the circle.
- Evan Giesler. Giesler got the first Falcons goal and was active in the offensive zone.
The service academies finish the series Saturday at 7:35 p.m. at Cadet Arena.