Freshman Walker Sommer‘s first NCAA goal midway through the third period proved to be the difference in Air Force’s 4-2 victory over Niagara at Niagara Falls, N.Y. on Friday night.
The victory was Air Force’s fourth in its past five games, and fifth in eight second-half game. It featured a gritty effort by the Falcons (12-11-3, 7-9-2 AHC), who had to kill off nine penalties.
It took the Purple Eagles (11-14-2, 10-9-2 AHC) until their eighth power play to dent AFA goalie Billy Christopoulos (26 saves), when Noah Delmas gathered a rebound between the circles and sent it over a prone Christopoulos to make it 3-2 with 7:31 to play.
Sommer had given the Falcons a 3-1 lead when he one timed an errant Niagara clearing pass past goaltender Brian Wilson (19 saves) with 8:11 to go and Air Force on the power play.
Kyle Haak ensured the outcome with an empty-net goal with 1:32 after he created a turnover in the neutral zone.
“Let’s put it into perspective, this is a team that came into Colorado Springs and manhandled us,” Frank Serratore said. “Tonight we had to overcome a lot of adversity, but a lot was self-inflicted. We did not by any means play close to our best game and we still found a way to win.”
Unlike those meetings at Cadet Arena on Dec. 1-2, Air Force lead the entire game Friday.
Evan Giesler put the Falcons ahead 4:08 into the second period when, upon exiting the penalty box, he tracked down a loose puck in the neutral zone, skated into the Purple Eagles zone and beat Wilson with a shot that the goalie initially appeared to stop. Matt Serratore put an apparent rebound past him for good measure. Giesler’s goal was his seventh of the season.
Brady Tomlak gave the Falcons a 2-0 lead when he finished a play that Sommer had initiated, getting the puck to Ben Kucera. Kucera’s shot off the end board came to Tomlak, and the sophomore wasted no time putting it past Wilson.
Air Force had to withstand a big push in the third period by Niagara, which had an 11-5 shots-on-goal margin and cut the lead to 2-1 on Sean King‘s wraparound goal 8:52 in.
Sommer’s goal briefly re-established the two-goal edge before Delmas answered. Niagara had another power play moments later, but the Falcons smartly cleared pucks.
“We kill a big penalty with 5 minutes left,” Frank Serratore said. “We found a way to win tonight. When we needed a goal, we got it. … We can play better and we’re going to need to play better.”
Haak probably had the Falcons’ best chance in a first period that was almost completely void of flow due to various delays and four penalties. The junior center beat Wilson but hit a pipe with about two minutes to go in the period.
By the numbers
Air Force killed off its first seven penalties, running a streak of successful PKs to 20 before Delmas struck. Overall, the Falcons killed 8 of 9 penalties. They went 1 for 4 on the power play. … Niagara generated more total shots, 56-46. … Air Force was helped by a strong night in the faceoff circle, winning 41 of 73 draws (56 percent).
The Falcons remained without three injured regulars – forwards Jordan Himley and Tyler Ledford and defenseman Matt Koch. In addition, another defenseman, sophomore Joe Tyran, skated at forward in place of another defenseman Kyle Mackey, who’d played several games at forward as well. … Alex Mehnert (concussion) also returned to the lineup and was paired with fellow freshman Zack Mirageas on the blue line.
Air Force’s three stars
- Walker Sommer. The freshman’s first college goal proved to the winner. He also had a secondary assist on Brady Tomlak’s goal.
- Brady Tomlak. The sophomore snapped a six-game slump with his second goal of the season, giving the Falcons a 2-0 lead, and took virtually every important draw down the stretch.
- Billy Christopoulos. The junior stopped 26 shots and had to stand tall in nine penalty kills.
The teams play again Saturday at 5 p.m. MST. AM 1300 will have the broadcast, also available via GoAirForceFalcons.com. AtlanticHockey.tv (subscription) will have a video feed.