GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — It took until the final seconds of a 20-minute overtime period, but at long last the Air Force Falcons scored at 19:51 to slip past Wayne State, 4-3, in the longest game in CHA history.
Theo Zacour took a pass from wing Mike Knaeble and beat Wayne State goaltender Matt Kelly over the right shoulder to cap a three-hour marathon and propel the Falcons into the CHA semifinals for the first time since 2002.
“Mike Knaeble made a play and beat a [defenseman], and got the puck to me, ” Zacour said of the game-winner. “It’s a great feeling. I’m happy for all of us. We deserved this win.”
The first period got off to a wild start, as Wayne State scored just 33 seconds after the opening faceoff and the teams combined for three goals in the first 7:45.
Dan Iliakis drew first blood for the Warriors, taking a pass from Jason Baclig and Stavros Paskaris and beating Air Force goaltender Peter Foster just 33 seconds into the game. That lead held for just over three minutes, as Andrew Ramsey took advantage of a roughing penalty to Wayne State’s Taylor Donohoe. With an assist from Brooks Turnquist, Ramsey picked up his 10th goal of the campaign to draw the Falcons even at 1.
Baclig scored his third goal of the year at 7:45 to put the Warriors back on top. Paskaris issued his second assist of the period to help stake the Warriors to a 2-1 advantage heading into the first intermission.
Air Force needed just 2:39 of the second to draw even. Taking advantage of a tripping penalty to Donohoe just 1:03 into the frame, Ramsey hammered home his 11th goal of the season, and his second power-play marker in as many periods for the Falcons, with help from Zacour and Brian Gineo to make the score 2-2.
Donohoe’s penalty was the first of three for the Warriors in the first 4:44 of the period. In total, the teams combined to draw eight penalties in a rough second period — five minors on Air Force alone, including two in a span of 17 seconds to Steve Mead and Brian Gineo. Those two whistles helped Wayne State recapture the lead, 3-2, when Nate Higgins scored on the five-on-three power-play at 18:30.
Wayne State miscues again allowed the Falcons to pull even. For the third time in three periods, the Warriors drew a penalty within two minutes after the opening faceoff, and for the third time Air Force made them pay.
Tylor Michel was whistled for interference at 1:16, and before he could even get seated in the penalty box Brandon Merkosky had knotted the score. Taking helpers from Brian Gineo and Brooks Turnquist off the faceoff, Merkosky needed just seven seconds to score his 14th goal of the year and make the score 3-3 at 1:23 of the third period.
“Our Achilles’ heel bit us again, getting penalties and fighting off penalties,” Wayne State head coach Bill Wilkinson said. “That doesn’t take anything away from Air Force. They played a good game.”
That 3-3 draw held until the end of regulation. Wayne State failed on two power-play chances after Air Force’s tying goal, and the Falcons failed on one opportunity with the man advantage to earn the win in regulation.
The teams played a penalty-free overtime period, capped by Zacour’s game-winner.
“This has been a season of coulda, shoulda, woulda,” Air Force head coach Frank Serratore said. “All year, we’ve let leads escape us in games that have turned into ties or losses. But tonight, I thought we were the better team and deserving of this win. I’m real proud of our young team. They earned a well-deserved victory.”
Air Force used three power-play goals in regulation to stay in the game, going 3-for-7 with the man advantage. Conversely, Wayne State’s failures on the power play kept the Warriors from putting the Falcons away. The Warriors scored just once on eight opportunities with the man advantage.
“Special teams and goaltending are the keys once you get into the playoffs,” Serratore said. “We’ve been cold on the power play, and this was an awfully nice time for it to come back.”
Foster saved 29 of 32 shots to earn his 12th win of the season, including all 10 shots in overtime, and saw his record improve to 12-14-3. He outdueled Wayne State’s Matt Kelly, who turned aside 39 of 43 shots, but yielded on the ninth shot of the extra period. The loss dropped Kelly to 10-10-1 on the season.
“Penalties killed us,” Kelly said. “We gave them power plays and they took advantage of them to get things going.”
Air Force advances to the Wells Fargo CHA Tournament semifinals, where it will face No. 1 seed Bemidji State in Saturday’s second contest. Opening faceoff is slated for 7:35 p.m. Central time at the IRA Civic Center. The Falcons improve to 14-18-3, while Wayne State sees its season come to an end at 14-17-4.