Say this for the Air Force Falcons, they are a resilient bunch.
Facing a surging Bentley team one day after being shut out and going into a 2-0 hole in the first period, Air Force showed rare fortitude in scoring the game’s next four goals for a vital 4-2 Atlantic Hockey victory Saturday. It came in Bentley’s final game at the John A. Ryan (JAR) Arena.
Special teams, a mixed bag for Air Force so much of the season, delivered in a big way. Matt Serratore broke an AFA weekend scoreless drought of 87:57 with a second-period power-play strike. That momentum was important, and it seemed to energize Air Force when it had to kill off a five-minute major just seconds later.
Evan Giesler tied the score on a power-play goal midway through the third.
That was one important breakthrough for this game, one in which Bentley took 13 penalties resulting in 10 Air Force power plays, and going forward. The Falcons also killed off all four Bentley penalties, giving them 38 kills in their past 40 man-down scenarios.
“I liked the way we played right from the get go,” AFA coach Frank Serratore said. “There was nothing easy about that game. Our special teams responded.”
Perhaps a bigger breakthrough for Air Force (15-12-4, 10-10-3 AHC) was rallying from a deficit entering the third period. It was the first time in 14 games this season (1-11-2) the Falcons rallied to win when down after two periods and only the fourth time they have come back to gain a win.
Freshman Alex Mehnert, inserted into the lineup Saturday after sitting out Friday’s game, gave Air Force the lead for good with a slap shot 3:13 after Giesler scored, and Brady Tomlak, who set up Giesler’s goal, iced it with an empty-net goal with 12 seconds to go.
“We didn’t give them a whole lot,” Serratore said. “We needed to win a game that was hard. We respond when our backs are against the wall. We have to respond all the time.
“I liked the way we competed the entire way. We didn’t let adversity get us.”
The JAR, a municipal rink in Watertown, Mass., whose quirks are the stuff of legend, might have given Air Force a needed break with 3:01 left in the first period. Down 2-0 after Bentley goals from Ryner Gorowksy on a rebound and Jake Kauppila after he walked in and deked goaltender Billy Christopoulos, a broken pane of glass delayed the game for more than 10 minutes.
“I told the refs we would go into the locker room, but he (Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist) turned it down, he would have had a fresh sheet of ice for a power play,” Serratore said.
Reeling to that point, Air Force regrouped and came out much stronger in the second period. Matt Serratore gained position to put a rebound past Jayson Argue (21 saves) after defenseman Matt Koch‘s shot ricocheted off the goalie with 7:57 to play.
Just 39 seconds later, Erich Jaeger was whistled for a five-minute interference penalty, and Air Force again responded, limiting Bentley (11-14-6, 8-12-5 AHC) to just one shot on its power play. That capped a period in which AFA outshot the hosts 9-5.
If anything, Air Force turned up the pressure in a dominant third period. Bentley didn’t help its cause by taking six minor penalties in the period – two of which matched Air Force penalties. That helped contribute to AFA’s 11-2 shots edge.
On one of the AFA power plays, Tomlak retrieved a puck along the back wall, walked out and fed Giesler a cross-crease pass that the junior wasted no time burying 8:09 in. Mehnert got the first game-winner of his career when Dan Bailey, playing center one night after playing defense, dug the puck off the wall and fed the freshman, who fired away through traffic with 8:28 to go.
Christopoulos was good when he needed to be early in the game and finished with 14 saves.
The Falcons’ fortitude reversed their fortunes in a tough environment and put them back in the conversation for one of AHC’s top five spots, which comes with a first-round conference playoff bye. Air Force stands tied for sixth in AHC with Niagara and RIT.
But first things first.
“The JAR is officially closed,” Serratore said.
Air Force was without junior center Kyle Haak for the second game in a row because of an upper body injury. … AFA changed up its lineup for Saturday’s game, inserting freshmen defensemen Mehnert and Jake Levin, moving Bailey up to center and sitting seniors Jonathan Kopacka and Ben Kucera.
Air Force’s three stars
- Alex Mehnert. His second goal of the season was a biggie, giving Air Force its first lead of the weekend.
- Brady Tomlak. The sophomore made a terrific play to get the puck to Evan Giesler for the tying goal then finished things off with an empty-netter.
- Matt Serratore. His second-period goal energized AFA. He also drew two penalties and blocked two shots.
Air Force travels to Hamden, Conn., to play Sacred Heart at Quinnipiac University on Tuesday at 10 a.m. MST. It is a makeup of the Jan. 20 game at Cadet Arena that was postponed because of a government shutdown.
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