Skilled defensemen keep Air Force in the title mix

Last season, Air Force entered the post-Andrew Volkening era and things turned out just fine. Led by Jacques Lamoureux (44 points), and getting steady and later hot goaltending from rookie Jason Torf, the Falcons captured their fourth Atlantic Hockey playoff title in five seasons.

But now Lamoureux is gone, as well as stalwarts Derrick Burnett, Scott Kozlak and Brad Sellers.

The cupboard is hardly bare, with 18 players back, including five of six starters from one of the top defensive corps in college hockey, led by senior Scott Mathis and Tim Kirby.

“They’re the most talented set of defensemen we’ve ever had at Air Force,” said coach Frank Serratore.

When Mathis (first team all-AHA last season) is mentioned as being on a short list of candidates for player of the year this season, Serratore is quick to throw Kirby in that mix, too.

“He’s been huge for us,” he said. “He made big plays in big games. Lamoureux scored the winning goal against RIT but Kirby made that play that won us the championship. He went end to end and … Lamoureux was able to bang in the rebound.”

The defense also includes Adam McKenzie, who put up 19 points as a freshman.

“Adam McKenzie was fifth in the league in scoring by defenseman and he hardly ever played on the power play because we had Kirby and Mathis ahead of him,” said Serratore.

Torf played in 33 games for the Falcons last season and was named to the all-rookie team. He posted a 1-0 shutout against RIT in the AHA finals, making 40 saves. In the NCAA tournament against top-seeded Yale, he was again outstanding in a 2-1 overtime loss.

“The starting job is his to lose,” said Serratore. “For him to do what he did as a young freshman coming in and replacing Volkening … if we can score two measly goals, the kid beats Yale.”

Among the forwards, Serratore expects Paul Weisgarber to lead on and off the ice.

“He’s an outstanding young leader, as good as we’ve ever had,” said Serratore. “He’ll be key to us becoming a team. It’s a long process sometimes for guys to accept and embrace their roles. But when that happens, we’re tough to beat. Our record from the middle of February has been unbelievable.”

About the Falcons

2010-11 overall record: 20-12-6

2010-11 AHA record: 14-7-6 (second)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): Second

Key losses: Jacques Lamoureux (F), Derrick Burnett (F), Scott Kozlak (F)

Players to watch: Scott Mathis (sr., D), Tim Kirby (sr., D), Paul Weisgarber (sr., F), Jason Torf (so., G)

Impact rookie: Chad Demers had 50 points in 51 games at Fargo (USHL) last season.

Why the Falcons will finish higher than the coaches poll: The Falcons may not score as many goals as last season, but with outstanding defense and goaltending, they don’t have to.

Why the Falcons will finish lower than the coaches poll: Air Force will miss Lamoureux, one of the league’s best goal scorers.