We’ve certainly seen our share of classic rivalries played out this season on CSTV’s Friday Night Hockey, games like Boston College vs. Boston University, Michigan against Michigan State, and Yale against Harvard. The rivalries shared by those schools have a lot in common: longstanding traditions of hockey dominance, geographically close schools, and membership in the same conference.
The hockey rivalry between Army and Air Force has none of those things, but it’s as pure a rivalry as you will find anywhere in the country. These guys aren’t playing for scholarship money, and they’re not playing to earn professional contracts. They’re playing because they love the game of hockey, and on Friday on CSTV, they’ll be playing for the pride of their respective academies. It’s a special game for every player, coach and manager involved. Of course, at the end of the game, it’ll be a little more special for one side, and there are three factors that will be key for either academy to come out on top.
STAY IN CONTROL: One key for each team to accomplish its “mission” on Friday is to control the puck. Obviously, puck control is always important – if you don’t have the puck, you can’t score – but in this game, hanging onto the puck is going to be absolutely crucial.
For Army, puck control is important for giving as many chances as possible to a team that has been offensively challenged, to say the least. First-year head coach Brian Riley has a very young team at West Point, with nine freshmen making regular appearances in the Black Knight lineup (and six more “plebes” in the class), and no pure skill players on the team. Riley has said that the Knights’ work ethic and discipline needs to better than the other team’s every single night in order for the team to win, and this game is no exception. Army will need to work hard, control the puck, and test Air Force goalie Peter Foster as early and as often as possible. The Black Knights need to create offense by funneling shots to the net, and they need to hang onto the puck to be able to do so. If they can, look for returning offensive leaders Ryan Cruthers and Chris Garceau to make an impact, along with current points leader
Seth Beamer and top goal-scorer Robb Ross.
Air Force, on the other hand, cannot let Army have multiple chances. Frank Serratore’s Falcons do not want to let Army get settled in and take multiple shots. Instead, Air Force will be looking to limit the Black Knights to one shot, get the puck out of their zone quickly, and get Army into a transition-based game. If the Falcons can do that, they will have a decided advantage.
TEMPO, TEMPO: These two teams favor completely different game speeds, and whichever team can establish its tempo and control the pace of the game is likely to be standing tall when the final buzzer sounds.
Look for Air Force to try to get the game moving. Serratore is committed to playing four lines in an up-tempo game to try to wear Army down, and his Falcons will look to keep Army from playing gritty “road hockey” to try to grind out a win. A fast-paced game will benefit the Falcons, because it will allow them to get the most out of their top line, which includes the most skilled offensive players on in this week’s game: sophomores Brandon Merkosky (9-11-20) and Andrew Ramsey (5-11-16) and freshman Josh Print (5-5-10).
Merkosky is one of the best natural goal-scorers to play at Air Force in years, with a two-goal effort against in-state rival Denver as the most recent evidence of his scoring prowess. At center, Ramsey has the best puck skills on the team, which he uses to set up his line-mates. On the left wing, Print is one of the fastest skaters on the Falcons, and as he gets stronger in the weight room, he’ll continue to progress. In the meantime, Air Force needs to open up the game, so as to get the most out of Print’s speed, Ramsey’s hands, and Merkosky’s shot.
Army, on the other hand, will want to emphasize physicality, and slow this game down to a grinding pace, which will help the Black Knights neutralize Air Force’s top line. The Falcons aren’t afraid to mix it up with anyone, but a “track meet” pace will make them very dangerous, and Army doesn’t want that to happen. Look for the Knights to go from zone to zone, and establish a dump-and-chase style of play.
LAST LINE OF DEFENSE: Finally, look for goaltending to be a key in this game, as both teams have netminders who are capable of single-handedly keeping their teams in a game. Army, in fact, has two.
When junior goaltender Brad Roberts went down with an injury back in October, it looked to be a dangerous situation for the Black Knights. However, sophomore backup Treye Kettwick stepped in and did an admirable job, and Riley has him scheduled to start on Friday, even though Roberts has returned. Kettwick usually allows the puck to hit him, in contrast to Roberts’ more athletic style. Whoever is in net, though, expect him to give the Falcons a tough time: Roberts and Kettwick are Atlantic Hockey’s co-Goaltenders of the Week, as Kettwick only gave up one goal to UConn last Friday before Roberts shut the Huskies out on Saturday.
At the other end of the night, Air Force’s Peter Foster certainly knows how to hold down the fort. The sophomore has an NCAA-best five shutouts this season, and is a four-time CHA defensive player of the week. The undersized keeper has matured into a very athletic netminder, with a winning approach that relies on his instincts.
When all is said and done, these two teams will come together in a show of mutual respect and salute the fans. Until that time though, expect both teams to pull out all the stops in the name of their respective academies, giving us an intense, hard-fought game. It’s sure to be a special night, and I’m looking forward to it.
Billy Jaffe is a former college player at Michigan and has served as a broadcaster and an on-ice official for CCHA games. He is a regular contributor to CollegeSports.com.