LEWISTON, N.Y. — On a night when Niagara honored its seniors, goalie Marc Kielkucki made sure Air Force did not leave Dwyer Arena disappointed.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound senior from Brooklyn Park, Minn., turned aside 51 shots to preserve the Falcons’ 1-1 tie with Niagara in a College Hockey America contest before a sellout crowd of 1,500.
The game was Niagara’s fourth sellout of the season and the final home game for senior defensemen Timo Makela and Darwin Murray and senior winger Nicholas Carriere.
Freshman Drew Kriner scored for Niagara in the first period, but the Falcons’ Brian Gornick tied the game early in the third.
Kielkucki frustrated the Purple Eagles the whole weekend. He made 45 saves in Air Force’s 5-2 win Friday night. The Falcons left town with three out of a possible four points, the first time they have captured road points against the Eagles.
“Not only did we have 52 shots on net, we had a great percentage of Grade ‘A’ scoring opportunities. He was a big-time difference,” Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald said. “He was the difference the whole weekend, quite frankly.”
Despite Kielkucki’s efforts, the Falcons will have to participate in the quarterfinals of the CHA tournament. Even though they tied the Findlay in points with 19, they have fewer wins than the third-place Oilers. Air Force (6-9-4, 14-14-4) will either finish as the fourth or fifth seed for the tourney depending on how Wayne State closes the season.
The Warriors tied Bemidji State on Saturday, 1-1, to keep their hopes of third place alive. The top three seeds in the tournament have first-round byes. Wayne State closes the season at home Friday and Saturday against Niagara and needs a sweep in order to pass Findlay in the standings.
Niagara (10-5-3, 13-6-5) will be the No. 2 seed in the tournament that will be held March 8-10 in Huntsville, Ala.
“We needed to pull out a win instead of the tie,” said Kielkucki, who is in the running for CHA Player of the Year.
“Our goalie gave us a chance. He’s given us a chance for two years,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “It was all about our goaltending. [Friday] it was about goaltending totally. Theirs was bad, ours was great. If you have goaltending and special teams, you can steal games.”
The Falcons killed off four penalties Saturday and held NU scoreless in 10 power plays over the weekend.
The Eagles’ goaltending situation improved. Freshman Scott Lindsay made 18 saves. More importantly, he did not yield any soft goals, which had been fatal in Niagara’s previous two defeats.
Lindsay, 1-2-2 in his last five starts with a shutout, earned at least one start at Wayne State, MacDonald said. Classmate Rob Bonk has seen the bulk of the action this season, but has slumped of late. He’s been pulled in each of his last two starts, including Friday’s game against Air Force. Bonk has yielded 10 goals on 35 shots over that stretch.
“Rob Bonk’s from Michigan. We’re going there. He might play a game this weekend,” MacDonald said. “It’s a little premature to tell, but we definitely want Lindsay playing a game.”
While NU extended its winless streak to six games, the team took some positive strides toward getting back into the win column. The team played with a lot of energy and were winning some of the one-on-one battles that usually produce victory.
“I was very proud of our team. We were as low as you can be as a team going into this game in terms of feeling good about ourselves and respecting the way we’ve played lately and being able to handle adversity,” MacDonald said. “We were winning scrums, doing the little things we haven’t done in a long time. I couldn’t be prouder of the effort we put forth tonight.”
Carriere, who played with injured ribs, set the tone on the opening shift, delivering a hard check into the boards on Air Force’s Scott Bradley near the red line. He also set up Niagara’s goal at 10:52 of the first period.
“I thought he [Carriere] played great. He had a couple of good scoring opportunities. Darwin Murray and Timo Makela defended like warriors,” MacDonald said.
Carriere knocked the puck away from a Falcon in the neutral zone that Jordan Meloff gathered. He dished to Kriner whose backhander from the left circle glanced off the arm of Kielkucki and into the top right corner. NU outshot Air Force 19-10 in the opening 20 minutes.
Gornick scored on a partial breakaway to tie things at 1:34 of the third period. He snuck behind the NU defense and received Derek Olson’s pass. Scott Zwiers also earned an assist.
Niagara outshot the Falcons 13-4 in the final 20 minutes and 7-1 in overtime.