WORCESTER, Mass. — It was an exciting trip to the big dance, but eventually the clock struck midnight for Cinderella.
Fourth seed Air Force, vying to be the second Atlantic Hockey team ever to win an NCAA tournament game, gave No. 2 Miami a real scare, as the Falcons led 2-1 until the waning minutes of the third period. The teams traded chances well into overtime until Justin Mercier killed the dream with a beautiful top-shelf goal to give the RedHawks a 3-2 win in the Northeast Regional semi-final.
“The puck came loose in the neutral zone; I was able to pick it up,” Mercier said. “I knew I could take advantage of their ‘D’ if I got him turning, pivoting. It was almost a fake shot, got him to freeze up for a second, took the puck around him and made a play on net to get it past their goalie.”
Andrew Volkening played an amazing game in goal for the Falcons, making 30 saves. Carter Camper was the offensive standout for Miami, notching a goal and an assist.
“It’s exactly the way we thought it was going to go,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “Tough game, could go either way. [Air Force] did a great job; in overtime, it could’ve gone either way. Justin Meunier made a heck of a play to win it.”
“Obviously, it was a great college hockey team,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “I’m extremely proud of our team. We overcame a lot of adversity in that game, giving up a goal in the first minute.”
Before the game, Serratore had referred to Miami’s game film as a nightmare. The opening minute looked like a sneak preview of an equal to that horror movie when the RedHawks scored almost immediately.
It was a pretty harmless looking play. Miami took it up the left-wing side, and Tommy Wingels fired a 25-foot wrister that caught the far side of the net. Just 19 seconds in, it was 1-0 Miami.
Miami forward Nathan Davis followed that up 21 seconds later with a backhanded chance in the crease. Falcons’ goalie Andrew Volkening made the save, but it certainly looked like it could be a long day for Air Force.
“My game plan was to get off to a great start and that went out the window pretty much right away,” Serratore said. “So we had to go to plan B.”
The Falcons survived a handful of nominal chances over the next several minutes, then they enjoyed a modest flurry of shots of their own, as Derrick Burnett, Brad Sellers, and Greg Flynn all got pucks on RedHawks’ netminder Jeff Zatkoff within 20 seconds around the six-minute mark.
The next ten minutes featured no scoring chances whatsoever, which was probably just fine with the underdog Falcons.
Finally, senior Eric Ehn, one of the top forwards for Air Force despite missing 14 games due to injury this season, picked up a caroming puck on the left wing at 7:28 and fired a shot that just missed the far corner.
Miami very nearly made it 2-0 at 18:45 on a two-on-one chance. Freshman left wing Andy Miele rushed in on the off-wing, and the Falcons’ defender sprawled in an attempt to block his pass to Brian Kaufman. Miele’s great pass got through to Kaufman, but Volkening came up with a terrific save to keep it a one-goal game. With shots only 9-8 for Miami, the Falcons had reason to hope.
The early going of the second period was quite a turnaround from the game’s beginning.
At 1:50, Volkening made a highlight-reel save for the Falcons. After making the initial save on a power-play slapper by Ray Eichenlaub from the right point, Volkening was down and seemingly out as the rebound went to Jarod Palmer on the left-wing side. Palmer shot the puck at the wide-open net, only to have the netminder lunge to make a mid-air stick save with the puck inches from the goal line.
“Wow,” muttered Ryan Jones and Meunier together when asked about Volkening’s play afterwards. “He’s a big goalie and he does a good job of getting his body across the net,” added Jones.
“He was unreal,” teammate Josh Print said of his netminder. “He kept us in it more than a couple of times.”
“Over the years I’ve seen him make some unbelievable saves, more than I ever thought a goalie at Air Force could make,” Ehn added.
Spurred on by those heroics, Air Force tied it up within two minutes. Jeff Hajner got the puck on the left-wing boards and fired a shot on net. Zatkoff stopped it, but Derrick Burnett buried the rebound on his second attempt at 3:21.
Then Volkening stopped a Pat Cannone backhander 40 seconds later to keep it tied.
At 8:34, Air Force stunned the top seed by taking the lead on a great team effort. Two shots toward the Miami net bounced off bodies, and the Falcons stormed the crease. Print knocked it in, picking an extremely timely moment for his first goal of the season.
“Probably the biggest goal I’ve scored in my life,” Print said.
That seemed to get the RedHawks’ attention. Within a minute, Miami almost tied it when Nino Musitello somehow shot wide of a mostly open net from less than ten feet away. Miami mounted stead pressure, except, ironically, for a botched power play at 15:53, and by the end of the period, it seemed like Air Force really was ready for the buzzer to sound.
The early minutes of the third period were uneventful until 6:20, when Volkening got hammered while diving on a loose puck. Seconds later, Volkening faced a tough shot by Cannone. The goalie moved to his right but managed to throw out his pad for the save when the shot came to his left.
Volkening made another good save at 10:30 when Andy Miele nudged the puck to Brian Kaufman crashing the net.
A questionable too-many-men penalty on the Falcons with 7:50 remaining looked like it would loom large for both teams. Serratore squawked mightily about it but was extremely diplomatic afterwards.
“You can’t give the linesman an opportunity to make that call by leaving the bench early,” Serratore said.
Initially the result was almost a shorthanded shocker. Air Force won the draw and fired a shot on net from behind the red line, and the rebound went right to Brent Olson for a fluky but great opportunity. Zatkoff came up with the save on what might have been the game at that point.
Before the power play was up, Miami capitalized. After the RedHawks controlled the puck for an extended period with no clears, Alec Martinez fired a shot from the point that deflected off of a player in the slot. For once Miami got a good bounce, and the puck landed on the stick of Carter Camper on the left-wing side of the net for the easy shot and goal. That tied it with 6:16 left.
The teams headed into overtime, where Air Force had a chance one minute in on a two-on-one. Eric Ehn got off a backhanded shot, but the hustle of Ryan Jones backchecking made it less of an opportunity.
A questionable slashing call gave Miami a power play and a great chance to win it starting at 1:49. Two RedHawks fanned on one terrific bid early into the man advantage.
The next heart-stopping moment for Air Force came at 4:40, when a great pass off a two-on-one set up Ryan Jones, the nation’s leading goal scorer, for a clear shot, only to have Volkening make the arm save to keep the game going.
Air Force countered on a two-on-two when junior Brent Olson beat his man to get off a backhander that Zatkoff stopped. Three minutes later, Falcons’ forward Matt Fairchild had a shot as well, and it started feeling like the game could go either way after the RedHawks enjoyed the edge earlier in OT.
Finally, just after another great chance for Jeff Hajner of Air Force off of a rebound, Mercier ended it at 15:21.
Miami (33-7-1) faces the winner of the Boston College-Minnesota nightcap, though perhaps without forward Nathan Davis, who missed most of the game after suffering an upper-body injury in the early going.
Air Force (21-12-6) meanwhile, is done after a successful season
“To me, I’m so proud of our players,” Serratore said. “Most people didn’t even know that Air Force Academy was a Division 1 program, but they sure as heck do now.”
The loss also brought back memories of last year’s near win in an NCAA regional semi-final in both positive and negative ways.
“I’m proud that we’re not a one-hit wonder and that we’re a one-man band,” Serratore said, alluding to how the team won their league championship with former Hobey Baker finalist Ehn injured. “But I’ll take these two games to my grave.”