PLYMOUTH, Mich. — It was a game Air Force needed to win and a game Wayne State couldn’t afford to lose. Both happened as the visiting Falcons took a 6-4 win in front of a sparse crowd at the Compuware Sports Arena.
Mike Knaeble scored twice for Air Force (13-20-2, 5-13-1 CHA) and Mike Polidor made 32 saves for the victory. Freshman Jason Baclig popped in a hat trick for the Warriors (8-22-3, 4-14-1 CHA), but that was the lone bright spot.
“The score was 3-2 after one and I’m thinking, ‘How’s this thing going to turn out?’” said Air Force head coach Frank Serratore. “Wayne State plays a five-man neutral-zone trap where they dump it in and then hang around the middle of the ice. We countered that by strategically placing forwards and then getting the puck up to them so they could chip it in and then forecheck.”
Brandon Merkosky started the scoring just 2:44 into the game on a power play as he tipped a Billy Devoney pass past WSU goalie Matt Kelly for the early advantage. Baclig answered at 6:38 when he tapped in a John May rebound past Polidor, who came way out of the net. Baclig then tallied again at 11:38 when he was stoned on a breakway by Polidor, but corralled the rebound and beat Polidor short side for a 2-1 Wayne State advantage.
Knaeble knotted the game at two when he came in on Kelly, took a shot and as his stick hit Kelly’s, the puck fluttered over Kelly’s shoulder. Air Force captain Shane Saum made it 3-2 on a bang-bang play to Kelly’s left on a nice pass from Brooks Turnquist.
At 12:29 of the middle period, Baclig completed the hat trick on a goal that Polidor appeared to have under his pads.
“Mike swears that puck was never in,” Serratore said. “But when you’re the road team, a lot of times you don’t get the benefit of the doubt.”
Referee Brian Aaron went to the video replay, reviewed the goal and allowed it to stand.
“Jason’s a goal scorer and that’s obviously his forte,” Wayne State head coach Bill Wilkinson said. “He’s one of the all-time leading scorers in Junior B hockey and to have him perform the way he did tonight is what we expect of him and that’s to put pucks in the net.”
Knaeble made it 4-3 at 18:05 when he batted a loose puck out of mid-air past Kelly. Nate Higgins took a roughing penalty after the goal and Turnquist capitalized on a blast from the point at 19:09 to give the Falcons a two-goal cushion.
“That was basically a two-for-one special,” Wilkinson said. “They score, we take a stupid penalty and then they score again. You can see why Nate didn’t play much the rest of the night.”
Marc Carlson replaced Kelly to start the third period and shutout Air Force. John May brought the Warriors to within a goal at 11:38, but Ryan Wiggins sealed the win with an empty-netter with 30.9 seconds left.
“We needed this to happen,” Serratore said. “I was very pleased how we adjusted tactically and how we responded. We found a way to get it done.”
Serratore added that he was a tad worried at the start of the game.
“Polidor was fighting the puck early,” said Serratore. “It seemed like the first minute of the game took an hour.”
WSU is now 1-10-1 at home this year.
The two CHA foes complete the regular season tomorrow afternoon for a 3:05 p.m. matinee. Wilkinson is hoping for a better result.
“I’ve always said that you have to play with your heart and with your head,” Wayne State’s fifth-year bench boss said. “Right now, the boys are playing with a lot of heart, but their heads are someplace else.”
Unless the Warriors win big tomorrow, Air Force will be the fifth seed at the CHA Tournament next weekend and WSU will be in the sixth spot. Wayne State needs to win by at least four goals to avoid being the last-place seed.