COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Before a crowd of 2,657 at the Cadet Ice Arena, the Air Force Falcons took a huge step forward, stunning the No. 4 Denver Pioneers 5-2. Matt Fairchild got his first career hat trick and Andrew Volkening made 29 saves, including shutting down the Pioneers on a two-minute five-on-three, to seal the win.
“I expected us to get one of these; as I told the boys, ‘There’s one off the bucket list for me,’” laughed Falcons’ coach Frank Serratore afterwards. “We haven’t been afraid of these teams for a long time.”
Air Force got the better of the play in the first period. Denver looked tentative with the puck, as if they thought perhaps that all they had to do was show up and they would win. Instead, the Falcons’ forecheck tied the Pioneers up in their own end frequently. and the Pioneers gave up several two-on-one opportunities that tested Mannino early.
“The team’s been pumped up all week to play these guys,” said Fairchild. “Everybody was energized for the game.”
The Falcons top line of Josh Frider, Eric Ehn and Derrick Burnett buzzed all over the offensive end of the ice, getting numerous scoring chances. They finally capitalized on a two-on-one at 8:03 when Ehn carried the puck down the left side of the slot and passed it over to Burnett, who fired a perfect shot top corner past Mannino’s glove.
“Getting that lead was huge,” said Serratore. “These teams are tough to beat, and they’re even tougher to beat when you have to come from behind.”
The Falcons continued to generate numerous chances. Fairchild had a good shot from the slot that Mannino just got his right pad on, and Fairchild hit the near side post on a shot from the right side circle on a power play.
With under two minutes in the period, Michael Mayra was whistled for interference and the Pioneers looked to have a good chance to score. They moved the puck around the perimeter well and had some good shots, but Falcons’ goalie Andrew Volkening stood tall.
With time ticking down, the Falcons cleared the puck into the Pioneers’ zone, and Fairchild went in on the forecheck. Rhett Rakhshani emerged from the left side boards with the puck, took a few strides, and tried to poke the puck one-handed to Jesse Martin. Fairchild intercepted the puck and skated in alone on Mannino and shot. Mannino made a save with his left pad, but the puck lay just to the right of his pad, and Fairchild grabbed the rebound and slid it behind Mannino at the 19:55 mark of the period, sending electricity racing through the crowd.
“Well, Brent Olson went in; he was doing all the hard work,” said Fairchild. “He knocked it loose, so it was right in the middle. I just swatted at it and got the breakaway. Anytime you score a big goal, especially shorthanded, it’s a big confidence booster.”
If anybody thought that perhaps the late goal would wake the Pioneers up, they were mistaken. The Falcons continued to dominate all aspects of the game. The Pioneers looked slow, and the Falcons continued to out-hustle them to loose pucks, whether in their defensive zone to clear it or in the offensive zone to get more chances on Mannino.
The Pioneers started to press and get some chances, the Falcons counterattacked well, and at 11:03 made it 3-0 when Josh Schaffer, Josh Print and Mike Phillipich broke in three-on-two. Schaffer ended up pouncing on a rebound in the slot, lifting it past Mannino.
Fairchild continued to be a strong presence on the ice, and at 15:09 Brent Olson grabbed the puck in the left corner and fed it to Fairchild right on the doorstep. Fairchild quickly lifted it top corner stick side to make it 4-0.
“You’ve never prepared to have a 4-0 lead over the number four team in the country,” said Serratore. “All of a sudden, the players, subconsciously, start playing defensively, start playing to protect the lead, and only bad things can happen when you do that.”
Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky pulled Mannino at that point and replaced him with Marc Cheverie. It was the second game in a row that Mannino was pulled.
The Pioneers finally got a hard-working goal late in the period. Kyle Ostrow picked up the puck behind the net, fought off a man and threw it out front to Patrick Mullen. Mullen tried to shoot it, but the back ended up getting knocked back to Tom May,and wristed it past Volkening at 19:07.
“I went into the locker room after the second period when Denver had just scored and they were all talking about the things they needed to do in the defensive zone,” said Serratore. “I said ‘Guys, screw that, we know what to do in the defensive zone, but I got a better idea; let’s play in the offensive zone and we won’t have to worry about it.’”
Unlike the Falcons, the Pioneers were unable to carry any momentum from their late goal over to build on in the third period. However, at 7:37 of the period, the Pioneers had a golden chance when they were awarded a two minute five-on-three when Brett Nylander was called for tripping and Scott Kozlak was called for hooking.
“That was just something I knew we needed to get through without them getting on the board,” said Volkening.
The Falcons knuckled down however, content to let the Pioneers move the puck around the perimeter, wasting time instead of firing shots on Volkening.
“You have to just stay calm,” said Fairchild. “You got into that situation, and you just have to kill it off.”
Gwozdecky pulled Cheverie with a little over five minutes left, trying desperately to spark his squad. The Pioneers got several shots on, but at 15:08, Fairchild got the puck along the left side boards and fired a sharply-angled shot into the empty net.
“I’m very surprised, shocked, disappointed,” said Gwozdecky. “Something’s not right with our team. Something’s right because the effort for a number of guys isn’t there. I can handle losing, but it’s unacceptable when you have too many guys not competing at the level they need to compete at. Something has happened over the last couple of weeks that has us in a rut.”
The win was the first for Air Force against the Pioneers in 19 years, and the highest-ranked opponent they’ve beaten since they beat Colorado College in 1975, a team the Falcons will play Saturday night. It was also Serratore’s first win against a WCHA opponent since he took over as the Falcons’ coach.
“I could be politically correct and say it didn’t matter, but I would be lying through my teeth and I’m not a very good liar,” said Serratore, of getting the win over his former team. “