Top defensemen are gone but Air Force may be more difficult to play against

It’s no surprise that Air Force has again been picked to be Atlantic Hockey champions. The Falcons have accomplished that feat five of the six seasons they’ve been in the league.

While 10 of the 12 AHA teams have made it to Rochester for the semifinals in those six years, it has almost always been the Falcons that came away with the prize.

Last season was no different with Air Force dominating Mercyhurst and Rochester Institute of Technology in the semifinals and finals, outscoring them 10-2. In the NCAAs they threw a scare into eventual national champion Boston College. The game was 1-0 until BC got an insurance goal with 1:21 to play.

“You’ve got to be good, but you’ve got to be a little lucky, too,” coach Frank Serratore said. “We don’t put a huge emphasis on the regular season other than for playoff placement. We’re not playing as desperate hockey during the regular season. Our goal is to be playing our best hockey in games 30 to 40.”

Serratore said he is more focused on what he has coming back this season as opposed to what his team lost. Gone are all-league defensemen Tim Kirby and Scott Mathis, who played a combined 309 games for Air Force, putting up 178 points.

Serratore ran a system last season that featured the duo, who logged a huge number of minutes and could often be found rushing the puck or behind an opponent’s net.

“We might make some changes, but we’re going to play the way we’ve always played,” Serratore said. “Right now we’ve got [goalie] Jason Torf back who has won two championships. Of our top 12 forwards, 11 are back.

“We might not be as glamorous but we might be more difficult to play against. On paper we’re a more mature team. Our forward lines are going be more experienced, tougher and stronger.”

Those forwards include John Kruse and Kyle De Laurell, who combined for 31 goals last season. Rookie Cole Gunner put up 28 points his first season. And junior blueliner Adam McKenzie will emerge from the shadow of Kirby and Mathis. He had 18 points last season despite not seeing a lot of time on the power play.

Torf was injured for most of the first part of the last season but posted a .929 save percentage and a 1.71 goals against average in 19 games.

“He won us the championship in 2011 when we didn’t have the best team and won 1-0 [over RIT in the title game],” Serratore said. “Last year he had another shutout in the championship [4-0 over RIT]. He’s a proven winner. With a league like this, where everything is so close, that’s a difference maker.”

About the Falcons

2011-12 overall record: 21-11-7

2011-12 AHA record: 15-6-6 (First)

2012-13 predicted finish (coaches poll): First

Key losses: D Tim Kirby, D Scott Mathis, F Paul Weisgarber

Players to watch: G Jason Torf, F Kyle De Laurell, D Adam McKenzie

Impact rookie: Max Hartner isn’t a high-scoring defenseman like Kirby or Mathis but is steady on the blue line and captained Green Bay to the USHL title.

Why the Falcons will finish higher than the coaches poll: There’s no place to go but down. They’ll score enough to repeat if their defense and power play jell.

Why the Falcons will finish lower than the coaches poll: Kirby and Mathis logged tons of ice time. How much they’re missed may determine the Falcons’ fate. Also, goalie Stephen Caple, who did a fine job while Torf was injured, is gone. AFA has no proven alternative if that should happen again.