ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A well-executed plan resulted in yet another trip to the Atlantic Hockey championship game for top-seed Air Force in a 5-2 win over Mercyhurst.
“We knew we’d be able to move down low below the goal line and create some opportunities,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “Our guys executed our game plan.”
It was hard work behind the net that led to Air Force’s game-winning goal. Kyle De Laurell dug the puck free along the back boards and fed John Kruse, who skated quickly from the left half wall to the high slot and fired a quick wrist shot just under the crossbar over a spread-eagle Max Strang at 3:49 of the second period.
“Kyle took it to the back wall, and got it hard low, which we were trying to do all night, and took it around,” said Kruse. “That gave me a seam, which doesn’t happen that much, and he got it through. I got a nice shot on goal.”
Air Force sustained a lot of pressure on Strang in the first two periods, putting 32 shots on the Mercyhurst goalie through during that stretch, mostly in close, for a 3-1 lead after two periods.
“We knew it would be a tough game and we knew our biggest obstacle would be Strang,” said Serratore. Strang made three saves on shorthanded Air Force breakaways to keep the game close.
“I thought they took it to us pretty good in the first and second, then we figured out how to take it to them,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, whose fourth-seeded Lakers were much stronger in the third.
That extra effort would allow the Lakers to cut the Air Force lead to 3-2 at 2:01 of the final period.
Chris Bodo dug the puck free at the right point as the Falcons were trying to clear the zone and fed Derek Elliott, who was racing through the slot. Elliott wristed a one-timer over Jason Torf to cut the Air Force lead to one.
“I was one of the first guys in,” explained Elliott. “I found an open space in front. It was thanks to a lot of hard work from [Paul] Chaisson and Bodo. It was a great opportunity in the third period. It was fun.”
But that was too little, too late for Mercyhurst according to Gotkin, despite some solid pressure on Torf.
“If we could have played the whole game like we played the third, we could have taken it to them. We just really could not get going,” said Gotkin.
“Torf made some unbelievable saves in the third,” said Elliott.
Center Jason Fabian – who after the game had a large ice pack taped to the back of his bruised left hand – got an insurance goal with just under two minutes left. But it was a blocked shot off that hand earlier in the period – sending Fabian wincing to the bench – that proved even more important as that kept the game at 3-2.
Fabian’s goal at 18:13 proved to be the back-breaker for the Lakers. Fabian came up the right side into the zone and extended his long reach around the Mercyhurst defense and roofed the puck over Strang from low in the right circle.
“Tony [Thomas] made a nice little outlet pass and I was just trying to chip it in deep,” said Fabian. “Casey Kleisinger was high and made just a fantastic pass just inside the blueline. I think it surprised the goaltender a little bit. He’s so tough on one-shot goals and we hadn’t gotten one by him all year.”
Paul Weisgarber then added an empty-net goal, his second tally of the night.
Air Force took momentum quickly from the start.
Cole Gunner opened scoring just 100 seconds into the game, lifting a quick wrister from the right-wing half-boards on the near side past the glove of a screened Strang.
“It was kind of an odd play and snuck through one of our defenseman’s legs,” said Strang.
Mercyhurst countered at 6:27 on just its second shot of the game. Matthew Zay fed a pass behind his back from the boards and hit Daniel O’Donoughue moving to his left through the high slot. O’Donoughue wristed it to the top right corner, just ringing the crossbar.
Air Force regained the lead at 2-1 on the power play at 13:28. Stephen Carew’s shot from just outside the right circle was tipped into the top right corner over the shoulder of Strang by Weisgarber’s stick.
Ultimately, it was how each team carried out its game plan that made the difference.
“They just executed a little better than us today,” O’Donoughue said.
The Falcons have won their four previous Atlantic Hockey championship games and have played in all but one since joining the league six seasons ago. Air Force faces Rochester Institute of Technology at 7:05 p.m. EDT Saturday, taking on the Tigers in the championship game for the second straight year. Air Force beat RIT 1-0 with Torf in net in last season’s finale.
Video: Air Force coach Frank Serratore: