By every statistical measure Air Force’s offense has been in a funk this season.
It’s scoring is down by a half goal per game (2.7 from 3.2 a season ago), and its power play has the eighth-worst efficiency (13.5 percent) in Division I (it was 18.1 last season) and the worst in Atlantic Hockey Conference. Making matters worse, the Falcons – usually fierce defenders of their home ice – have gone a pedestrian 6-7-1 at Cadet Arena, including a ghastly 3-7-1 in AHC contests.
Add it up and it’s no wonder the Falcons’ path into the upper echelon of AHC, where at least one home playoff series becomes an option, appears difficult though not unreachable (a topic The Flight Path tackled earlier this week).
So how is it the Falcons find themselves with 14 wins, tied for the most in AHC with first-place Canisius?
For one, the Falcons have been excellent on the road – particularly in league play, where they are 6-2-2 and where five of their final seven regular-season games are.
For another, goaltender Billy Christopoulos has been consistently good in his first season as the man between the Air Force pipes. The junior has the lowest goals-against average (2.24) in conference games (to go with a .914 save percentage), and no AHC goalie who has played as many minutes as Christopoulos has has allowed anywhere near as few goals (46).
“We wouldn’t be where we are without him,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said this week. “Billy has quietly over the course of the season become our MVP. Will he finish that way? He still hasn’t played a playoff game. A lot of things can go south, but if that guy is good he can cover up a lot of warts.”
Those two factors have combined with a third one that has been a given for at least the past three seasons (we’ll limit it to that span because a majority of this season’s roster are juniors and seniors) – an excellent to elite penalty kill.
While that special teams phase didn’t start out promising (the Falcons were under 80 percent before the calendar flipped to 2018), it has been downright beastly in the past nine games, when AFA has killed off 34 of 36 opponent chances (94.4 percent).
That tracks with what this group of juniors and seniors seems to do yearly. Two seasons ago, the Falcons killed off 85.5 percent and last season the figure was an NCAA-leading 90 percent.
The out-of-character start didn’t sit well in the locker room, junior forward Matt Serratore said.
“Our attention to detail, communication and obviously goaltending is a big part, and Billy’s been lights out for us. That’s been a good portion of our success,” he said. “We sat down at the break, and that was one thing we were not happy with was how uncharacteristically bad our PK was. We talked about it, shored up a few things and got some things back in the lineup, and our attention to detail and communication have been the biggest parts.”
Junior defenseman Matt Koch elaborated further on those details that have sparked the resurgence to the 84 percent kill rate (11th in D-I) the Falcons have going into this weekend’s series at Bentley.
“We help each with pressure. There’s always someone supporting if someone does get the puck loose, other guys will be there to move it,” Koch said.
“Especially the veterans, we know how to do it. There’s a willingness to block shots, a willingness to help each other out and be there for each other, that’s what continues to make us successful.”
Returns to health of several key members of both special teams also has helped. In addition to Koch, defensemen Phil Boje, Dylan Abood and Kyle Mackey all have missed time because of injuries. Serratore missed a few games early, and the extended absences of centers Tyler Ledford and Kyle Haak – on the heels of center Evan Feno‘s season-ending injury in the first game of the season – also didn’t help.
The injury bug opened the door for a new wave of Falcons killers, and that group’s development might have some collateral benefits, according to the coach.
“A lot of our non-glamour players are killing penalties for us and doing a good job,” Frank Serratore said. “Erich Jaeger, Pierce Pluemer and Marshall Bowery. They’re not our glamour guys and they’re out there and they’re gobbling penalty-kill minutes. Ledford, (Erik) Baskin and (Jordan) Himley, I’m not out burning their batteries killing penalties, hopefully they can use that energy to score goals.”
If that happens, the Falcons will improve their chances of attaining one of their goals – repeating as AHC postseason champions and returning to the NCAA Tournament.
©First Line Editorial 2017-18