STORRS, Conn. — Air Force overcame a two-goal deficit with less than 10 minutes to play to earn a tie with Sacred Heart (4-9-1, 4-4-1 AHA), then won the shootout to reach the championship of the UConn Hockey Classic.
The Falcons (8-8-1, 4-8-1, CHA) got an extra-attacker goal to force overtime. Although the game was the first on the bill, it was second to none as far as excitement goes. Fans were treated to an exhilarating shootout, which went through the first round without a winner.
Theo Zacour, whose line accounted for both of the Falcon goals in regulation, roofed a shot over Kevin LaPointe, who prematurely dropped to his butterfly stance in anticipation of a low backhand shot. Zacour’s tally in the sixth round of shooters propelled Air Force to Monday’s championship game.
The road to a shootout was anything but easy for the Falcons. While holding a commanding lead in shots and puck possession, Air Force had nothing to show on the scoreboard for most of the game. LaPointe had an answer for everything that the Falcons fired at him from every spot on the ice, turning away 40 shots before Patrick Ramsey found the net.
But when the freshman forward slid a low backhand past the goalie on a loose puck in the low slot, the tide was ready to turn.
“We had that dreaded two-goal lead,” said Sacred Heart coach Hannah. “Everyone knows that it’s the toughest lead to have in hockey, but we need to play better in that situation; we need to be comfortable with that lead. We’re not making excuses … there have been a few times this year that we’ve had a lead and couldn’t hold on.
“I was thinking on the bench that the first goal to open the third period would decide the game,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “Good thing I was wrong. But there was a feeling on the bench that Ramsey’s [goal] would give us a chance to tie and maybe even win the game.”
With 33 seconds left to play, Brandon Merkowsky tipped his own rebound up over LaPointe’s shoulder for the equalizer. The extra-attacker goal marked the end of the scoring in the regulation, but the beginning of the real excitement.
“Our team has young men, like the teams of the other Armed Forces, that will not give up. Fans come out to watch us from all over the country because of the dedication that our Armed Services have and the appreciation that they have for what all of our young men are doing,” said Serratore.
A fast-paced overtime with both teams seeing great chances gave way to hockey’s most exciting scenario — a shootout.
LaPointe was clearly the player of the game, making 48 saves through overtime and stoning four of the six shooters he faced in the shootout.
“Even though we played pretty well defensively, I could count that we gave up six or seven chances between the hash marks in each of the first two periods,” said Hannah. “If Kevin had not have been there for us, who knows what the score could have been.”
Although the game got off to a slow start, the Pioneers salvaged a first period in which they were nearly doubled in shots. With less than two minutes to play, Peter Giatrelis collected a loose puck in front and found the net through traffic.
Air Force fought back to open the second period, creating several scoring chances and a couple of early power plays. Fortunately for the Pioneers, LaPointe withstood the onslaught in net. The senior netminder turned away all 30 Falcon shots through two frames, including several grade “A” chances on the penalty kill and a shorthanded breakaway.
His counterpart, Mike Polidor, made 21 stops, but saved his best for OT and the shootout where he was nearly perfect. He just missed stopping all six shooters when a puck that he had stopped between his pads trickled across the line.
That seemed to be the type of day Polidor had until the OT session.
“As a goaltender I know what it’s like not to face a ton of shots and it’s very difficult to find any kind of rhythm,” said Serratore. “Now, LaPointe was certainly the best player on the ice, but from a goaltender’s standpoint it’s much easier to stay sharp when you face a lot of shots.”
The Falcons will hope to carry momentum into the championship of the Classic Monday evening when they face the winner of the UConn/Bentley matchup. Sacred Heart will face the loser in the consolation.