DENVER — It was good while it lasted.
After riding a 13-game unbeaten streak that included knocking off in-state non-conference rival Colorado College, the Air Force Academy Fighting Falcons finally lost Saturday night, losing 4-1 to their other regional non-conference foe, the University of Denver Pioneers.
“In the games that we’ve played this year, I can’t say that we’ve played a better team,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “I don’t say that we played our best, but we had to play our butts off and still at times it wasn’t good enough and at that point, Marc Cheverie had to come and save the day for us. That’s as good a team as we’ve seen all year long and proved to me why they were undefeated coming into tonight’s game.”
The first period was a scoreless affair, with the Pioneers putting most of the early pressure on. The Falcons didn’t get any good chances until the halfway point of the period.
Air Force picked it up in the second period, getting two good chances, but failed to convert on either of them. About halfway through the second, Matt Fairchild got a breakaway, but Pioneers’ captain J.P. Testwuide got just enough of a stick on him to prevent Fairchild from getting off a good shot.
The Falcons’ second good chance came with about six minutes left in the frame when Scott Kozlak and Blake Page got a shorthanded two-on-one rush, but couldn’t score.
Instead, the Pioneers broke the scoreless tie a minute later on the same power play when Rhett Rakhshani picked up a loose puck in front of the net and fired it into an open net behind an out-of-position Andrew Volkening (25 saves). Rakhshani started the play, breaking the puck into the zone. He passed the puck to Joe Colborne, who dished it to Jesse Martin, who fired a tough-angle shot on Volkening. The puck popped out in front and Rakhshani was able to avoid the Falcon bodies flying around to swoop in and get the goal.
“Ironically, I thought we had a great second period,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “Then they manufacture a power-play goal. But I thought they were really good in the first period and we were really good in the second period.”
The Falcons carried that good second period into the final frame where they were able to tie it up 2:31 into the third when Scott Mathis fired a rising shot from the point that went in over Pioneers’ goaltender Marc Cheveries (38 saves) left shoulder.
“I didn’t even see [the puck], but that’s why it was a great shot, a shot through traffic that went bar down,” said Cheverie.
However, the Pioneers killed any momentum the Falcons may have gained by retaking the lead 30 seconds later on another scrum goal in front with Kyle Ostrow picking the puck up in front of the net and once again putting it in a virtually empty net.
From then on, it was all Denver. The Pioneers went up 3-1 on a Rakhshani skill goal when he redirected a waist-high Tyler Bozak shot down past Volkening.
“The third goal was just demoralizing because it was just a sick skill goal,” said Serratore. “But that was a tough one to swallow because we still felt when they scored, our bench was still optimistic [because] we’d had a lot of success and we were still optimistic with a lot of time on the clock, we’ll get the next one. But when they scored that one, it was a tough one to swallow.”
Serratore pulled Volkening with about two minutes left to try for another goal, but the Pioneers sealed the victory with an Ostrow empty-net tally with 1:48 remaining.
“That was definitely a winnable game, but looking back on what we did this weekend, splitting with Colorado College and DU, those are a couple of top-notch teams and coming into this weekend, if somebody said that you’re going to split, you take that,” said Volkening. “But right now, we’re really disappointed on how the game turned out.”
Still, the Falcons are proud of what they accomplished coming into the weekend, hopefully earning some respect on the national stage.
“We came into the weekend having a ton of respect for CC and Denver but I think we leave the weekend going you know what, next time we’re in this situation, hopefully we make the NCAA tournament, we have to play teams like this back to back, we’re not going to go into those games intimidated, not thinking in the back of our mind that we can’t get this done,” said Serratore. “Both teams are very good teams, but I think we found out this weekend that we’re a pretty good team too.”
“I think coming out of the weekend, probably as importantly, is I think that nationally, Frank and his program have developed tremendous respect from anybody who’s watching them,” said Gwozdecky. “Really dismantling CC and the game could have gone either way tonight.
“Best-of-seven series it goes seven games. That’s how close these two teams battled tonight.”