BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Much like its biblical predecessor, this David and Goliath matchup between fourth-seeded Air Force and top-seeded Michigan ended in monumental upset.
The Falcons converted early on their limited chances and rode extraordinary goaltending from Andrew Volkening to a 2-0 victory over the heavily-favored Wolverines for their first ever NCAA Tournament victory.
“Obviously this is a huge win,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “Our game plan was to push them wide, push their speed wide, and defend away from the puck. If they wanted to score, they were going to have to score one-shot goals, and scoring one-shot goals on Andrew Volkening is not an easy task.”
“But for us to play the game we wanted to play, we had to take the lead,” said Serratore.
The Falcons did exactly that at 15:18 of the first period on a power-play goal by Derrick Burnett.
“Derrick Burnett was a healthy scratch before the game,” said Serratore. “He’s got a leg injury, and our team doctor told us that he was at best 70 percent. I pulled him out in the hallway to scratch him, and he said to me, ‘I want to play. Not only will I play, but I’ll make a difference.’”
He certainly did made a difference, collecting a Jeff Hajner feed in the right circle and beating Michigan goaltender Bryan Hogan high over the right shoulder for a 1-0 lead.
Little did Air Force know that this would be the eventual game-winner.
By the end of the first period, the Falcons clung to the lead, but the Wolverines controlled the play with a 16-3 shot advantage.
“There wasn’t a lot of frustration,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “Our team expected to come back and win this game.”
Still, it was David that struck again in the second period.
This time, Matt Fairchild turned Michigan senior captain and NHL first-rounder Mark Mitera into a pylon, chipping the puck past him along the right wing boards and blowing by him to set up a two-on-one with sniper Jacques Lamoureux.
“Matt Fairchild has world class speed,” said Lamoureux. “People talk about Michigan’s speed, but he might be the fastest player on the ice. He just made a great play getting the puck out of the zone, beat [Mitera] at their blue line, brought it in, got their guy to commit, and he slid it over and all I had to do was put it in the net.”
“I didn’t get all of it, but I put it where I wanted to on the far side on the ice.”
Lamoureux’s score doubled the lead to 2-0, which was plenty to hold the lead with Volkening’s strong play in net.
“When you build a successful team, you start in goal,” said Lamoureux. “He’s been rock solid all year. We build off his confidence.”
“Somebody said a long time ago that when you get to this tournament, the team with the best goalie wins,” said Berenson.
Without a doubt, that goalie was Volkening.
Volkening, who now carries a streak of 218 minutes of shutout hockey, does not get much of the credit he deserves because he uses his size, a lanky 6’2″, and strong positioning, to stop the puck. He didn’t make the flashy saves, but he didn’t allow any big rebounds and didn’t allow Michigan’s offense to get any cheap ones.
“It’s a team effort, so I just have to stay within myself and make the stops that I have to make,” said a humble Volkening. “They’ve got a high-powered offense, so our goal was to keep things 0-0 for as long as possible and we knew we’d pop one.”
Serratore made light of the fact that Michigan outshot his Falcons by a 43-13 margin, which also doubles as the lowest shot total for a victorious team in NCAA Tournament history, by focusing on the type of shots that Michigan had.
“They had a lot of shots, but how many second shots did they get?” asked Serratore. “How many outnumbered situations did they get? They had one two on-one and Mayra broke it up. They had one breakaway up the seam, and we ended up taking a penalty on it. How many backdoor shots did they get? How many rebounds did they get?”
“If you told me that we were only going to give up one odd man rush and one breakaway to this team before the game started, sign me up; I’d take that any day.”
“Defensively, we were all over them,” said Lamoureux. “We always had sticks in the lanes and we were on them. As a scorer, you can tell that they were definitely getting a little bit frustrated.”
Frustrated is one word to describe Michigan; stunned is another. Michigan seemed destined for their 24th Frozen Four for a chance to play for an NCAA-record 10th national championship.
“It’s disappointing for our team,” said Berenson. “Expectations are high every year, but I can tell you that this team did not look ahead. They put everything they had into this game, and they just could not put the puck in the net.”
When asked to describe the emotion attached to having the season end in such disappointment, junior captain Chris Summers paused for what seemed like an eternity to gather his thoughts and then remained speechless. The silence said it all for a Michigan squad that boasts 13 NHL draft selections.
In the other locker room, Air Force will have to find a way to put its biggest win in program history in perspective and take the momentum forward. After failing to settle for being happy with a third-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, this hungry Falcons’ service squad is just one win away from a fitting trip to Washington, D.C.
“I’m so happy for our kids, fans, program and alumni,” said Serratore.. “Obviously we’re going to reel it back in and prepare for an opponent tomorrow, but for right now we’re going to savor this one. We’ll deal with Yale or Vermont starting tomorrow.”