Lunchtime OT loss to Sacred Heart gives Falcons heartburn

Erich Jaeger. Photo courtesy of Air Force Athletics

This is one lunch special that Air Force would like taken off the menu.

Playing a rare Tuesday game at an even rarer start time of noon Eastern, the Falcons rallied to tie the score early in the third period only to lose when Sacred Heart scored midway through overtime to take a 2-1 verdict at Hamden, Conn.

The game was a makeup of a Jan. 20 contest at Cadet Arena that was postponed due to a government shutdown, and given last weekend’s series at Bentley was the Falcons’ last scheduled regular-season series in the vicinity of Sacred Heart, a compromise was reached to play a neutral-site game at Quinnipiac University.

Freshman Matt Tugnutt scored on a tough-angle shot 2:54 into the extra session to thwart the Falcons’ attempt at taking four of six Atlantic Hockey Conference points on their unconventional three-game trip.

The Falcons (15-13-4, 10-11-3) have 23 points, good for a tie for seventh in the conference, and two series remaining – against first-place Canisius and fourth-place Robert Morris. As it stands, Air Force would host a first-round series if the playoffs started tomorrow. However, with eight possible points to be had, the Falcons could move into the top five and earn a first-round bye. Of course, things could go in the other direction, and sitting just one point out of the bottom three, they could find themselves on the road as long as their season continues.

Conversely, Sacred Heart (10-16-4, 8-12-4) – the 11th-place team – sits just three points behind Air Force and with the right combination of wins and other teams’ losses could find itself in position to host a first-round matchup.

In other words, welcome to life in Atlantic Hockey this season.

The Pioneers, who took five of eight points from the Falcons this season by going 2-1-1, dented AFA’s penalty kill – which had stopped 38 of its previous 40 chances against – just 1:47 into the game, when freshman Marc Johnstone scored from the back door after Sacred Heart’s Vito Bavaro and Zack Tsekos quickly moved the puck from side to side.

Sacred Heart retained its lead for the next 44:12 of game action until Falcons freshman Marshall Bowery buried a chance from the slot 5:59 into the third after Erich Jaeger and Trevor Stone won a board battle for the puck and Stone found Bowery in the middle of Main Street.

Billy Christopoulos (26 saves) kept the Falcons in the game, particularly early when Sacred Heart applied more of the game’s pressure. Air Force seemed to build momentum throughout and had a golden opportunity in the final four minutes of regulation when the Pioneers were assessed a penalty for too many men on the ice. But the Falcons couldn’t dent junior Brett Magnus (23 saves) on the ensuing power play.

That set the stage for Tugnutt’s winner and added a layer of complexity to the Falcons’ playoff designs.

This was very, very disappointing,” Falcons coach Frank Serratore told AM 1300’s Jay Ritchie after the game. “At this time of year, you either get it done or you don’t. Sacred Heart is a strong team that is playing with confidence right now.

“I thought we played pretty good in the second and third periods. This game was pretty even and could have gone either way. But they found a way to win and we didn’t.”

Notable

Junior center Kyle Haak, who has an upper body injury, did not play for the third game in a row. Haak, who overcame a knee injury that cost him nine games earlier in the season, had been playing well of late, with points in four consecutive games and five of his past six. Defenseman Dan Bailey again played center and acquitted himself well, winning four of six face-offs. Another blue liner, sophomore Joe Tryan again skated at wing with Bailey and Pierce Pluemer. … The Falcons did not score on any of their four power plays, while Sacred Heart got Johnstone’s goal in its three chances.

Air Force’s three stars

  1. Marshall Bowery. The freshman scored for the fifth time in his past seven games and sixth time overall.
  2. Billy Christopoulos. He gave up just one goal through 27 shots before the Pioneers made the Falcons pay on the 28th. Another solid outing from the junior.
  3. Erich Jaeger. The sophomore continues to make good use of his increased role, picking up an assist on Bowery’s goal, blocking two shots and winning 75 percent of his face-offs (9 of 12).

Up next

The Falcons play host to AHC leader Canisius, with whom they split earlier in the season in Buffalo, on Friday at 7:05 p.m. and Saturday at 5:05 p.m.

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