NIAGARA, N.Y. — The hockey gods finally smiled down on the Air Force Falcons.
In a season where Air Force has outshot its opponent in 18 of 23 contests, the Falcons had only a handful of victories to show for their efforts. But Friday against the home standing Niagara Purple Eagles, Air Force received timely saves from goalie Peter Foster and out skated Niagara to prevail by a 3-2 margin.
For Niagara, the setback marked a squandered opportunity to gain ground on CHA-leading Alabama Huntsville, as the Purple Eagles sagged again in surrendering the game winner late in the third period.
“It all started with our backside pressure tonight,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “We pressure the puck in every zone. The key to holding the line (defensive blue line) is our backside checkers, moving their puck carrier wide, and we were able to execute our back check scheme all night.”
When Niagara did get the puck deep, the Purple Eagles had trouble sustaining pressure and cycling the puck low. The Air Force defense corps began to turn the tide after a key penalty kill in the second period, and from there the Falcons won consecutive shifts and swarmed Niagara with a staggering 21 shots to end the second period.
With the score tied 2-2 late in the third, Falcon center Eric Ehn floated behind the Niagara defense, seized an open puck, and centered a pass that found its way to defenseman Billy Devoney. Devoney’s slap shot beat Purple Eagle goaltender Jeff Van Nynatten for the game winner.
“The big difference tonight was that we were strong in our end,” Falcon center Theo Zacour remarked. “We kept our feet moving, broke up some passes, got the bounces and finished. It’s been the same story all year: we outplay almost every opponent, but in the end we somehow lose it. Tonight we finally got it done.”
The Falcons fourth line of Zacour, Brian Reese and Brent Olson played a key role in carrying the play to Niagara. Air Force took the lead 2-1 in the second when Zacour stripped Scott Langdon of the puck and fed Reese, who skated along the right wing and beat Van Nynatten to the short side.
“They didn’t sneak up on us,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “We knew they had outshot many of their opponents. If our power play doesn’t bail us out, we don’t seem to win, which is not good. It was frustrating to see us not moving our feet and all the turnovers.”
Niagara scored first when converted defenseman Marc Norrington found the net on a low wrist shot. Matt Carruana redirected Norrington’s shot past Foster for the early Niagara 1-0 lead.
Air Force tied the game early in the second after Josh Schaffer pounced on an open puck in front of the Niagara net after a scrum.
Niagara tied the game in the third on a goal by Sean Bentivoglio with an assist from Les Reaney.
Air Force continued to mount pressure as the clock waned and the Devoney struck for the game winner with less than three minutes left. The victory brought the Falcons to 6-16-1, while Niagara dropped to .500 with a record of 13-13-1.
The teams meat again Saturday to conclude the season series.