Through rocky start to the season, Air Force finds positive developments

George Michalke missed most of last season after a head injury, but he has three goals in four games this season for Air Force (photo: Melissa Wade).

The Air Force Falcons are only four games into this season, but they’ve had enough drama to fill a complete schedule.

Disrupted by the government shutdown and frustrated by bad breaks and weird bounces in a pair of season-opening losses at the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage, Alaska, the Falcons found their groove last weekend on home ice with a convincing sweep of Penn State.

Air Force’s season got off to a rocky start, uncertain if it was going to be allowed to travel to Alaska. The Falcons were cleared to fly at the last minute.

“We lost work days because of the shutdown,” Falcons coach Frank Serratore said. “We lost our exhibition [a home game against New Brunswick]. In a way, the [Alaska] Fairbanks game was our exhibition where we got some of the kinks out.”

The Falcons allowed only 17 shots on goal in their opening contest with Alaska but lost 6-1. The following day, Air Force had a territorial advantage for most of the game against Alaska-Anchorage but surrendered three goals in the final 1:52 and lost 4-2.

“Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong”, Serratore said. “The game-winning goal, it was a crazy play where [defenseman Adam] McKenzie goes into the corner to play the puck, and … his stick gets caught in a gap in the boards. The puck goes out in front of the net and it’s a goal. Three seconds to play.

“Our special teams were not good all weekend [0-for-12 on the power play; three power-play goals allowed]. Our goaltending wasn’t good the first game.”

Last weekend was a different story, as the Falcons swept Penn State 5-2 and 3-1.

“The effort was absolutely better,” Serratore said. “Special teams were better. [Goaltender Jason] Torf was outstanding. We got some bounces. We’ve been a team that has gotten some bounces but we didn’t get any bounces in Alaska and going all the way back to the [AHA quarterfinal] series with Canisius last year.”

A positive development for the Falcons has been the return of forward George Michalke, who suffered a serious head injury just five games into last season and missed the remainder of the 2013-14 campaign. Michalke has three goals in four games so far this season after registering eight goals in his prior 70 games.

“He’s never played like he is right now,” Serratore said. “He’s got a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

“I think when something like that happens, when your career is literally in danger, when you’re taken away from the game, you realize how much you miss it.”

Air Force awaits the next challenge, hosting Niagara and Canisius this weekend.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Serratore said. “Not in this league anymore.”

Youth movement at Sacred Heart

Despite a 7-1 loss to Rensselaer last Saturday, things are looking up for Sacred Heart. The Pioneers are 2-2, already matching their win total from last season.

Victories over then-top-ranked Massachusetts-Lowell and conference rival Bentley have been offset by a pair of losses to No. 12 Rensselaer.

Fresh faces are making big contributions so far. Alex Vazzano, a transfer from Vermont, has been in net for both wins this season, posting a .917 save percentage and a 3.00 GAA. Last season, Pioneers goaltending had just a .872 save percentage and a 5.01 GAA.

Junior Drew George leads the team in scoring with three goals and four points, but five of the other Pioneers players with points are freshmen.

In Sacred Heart’s 3-1 victory over Bentley last Wednesday, Vazzano posted 37 saves while freshman Mitch Nylen had a goal and an assist. Another rookie, Justin Danforth, had a pair of assists.

The Pioneers travel to American International on Saturday.

Goaltending in the spotlight

After a record 25 nonconference wins last season (combined 25-48-12), AHA teams are behind that pace so far at 5-25-1.

Atlantic Hockey went 3-9-1 last weekend, with wins earned by Mercyhurst (split with Merrimack) and Air Force (sweep of Penn State). AHA teams were outshot by an average of 38-25 in those contests, with only Air Force outshooting its opponents.

In all but three of those 14 games, Atlantic Hockey goalies made 32 saves or more. Highlights included Mercyhurst’s Jimmy Sarjeant stopping 35 of 36 shots in a 3-2 win over Merrimack, Bentley’s Brandon Komm making 33 saves in a 2-1 loss at Maine, and Holy Cross’ Matt Ginn’s turning away 48 shots in a 5-2 loss at Northeastern.

Ginn’s save count was the third-highest single-game total in Holy Cross’ 15-year Division I history. Ginn also holds second place with a 51-save effort against Brown in 2012. The all-time record for saves in a game at Holy Cross is 56 by Matt Smith in 2000.

Not to be left out, Niagara and Robert Morris skated to a 3-3 tie on Saturday, and goaltending was key in that contest. Rookie Adrian Ignagni made 35 saves for the Purple Eagles and sophomore Terry Shafer came up with 36 stops for the Colonials.

Fathers and sons

This season there are four Division I players with paternal ties to Atlantic Hockey coaches:

• Tom Serratore is finishing his college hockey career at Minnesota. He’s the son of Air Force coach Frank Serratore (and the nephew of Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore). He’s played in 109 games, tallying 15 points.

• Stu Wilson, son of Rochester Institute of Technology coach Wayne Wilson, won a national championship in his freshman season at Yale. Wilson led all rookies in scoring at Yale last season with 17 points.

• Trevor Hills, the son of RIT associate head coach Brian Hills, is starting his rookie season at St. Lawrence.

• The lone AHA player on the list is freshman Jack Riley, who has appeared in all five games to date for Mercyhurst. He’s the son of Army coach Brian Riley and nephew of former Black Knights coach Rob Riley. He’s also the grandson of legendary coach Jack Riley, who was behind the Army bench for 36 years and coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1960 at Squaw Valley.

In situations like these, it’s often mom who attends games since dad is hard at work with his own team. Frank Serratore said he’s able to follow Tom quite well thanks to the Gophers having the majority of their games televised.

“It’s an NHL-caliber broadcast”, he said. “I Tivo them and watch when our game is over.”

USCHO Atlantic Hockey players of the week

Dan Rubin and I have decided to choose our own players each week instead of just reporting on the official league selections. But I am in agreement with the trio picked by the folks in Haverhill, Mass.:

Player of the week — Air Force junior Cole Gunner: Gunner had four points (two goals, two assists) in a sweep of Penn State.

Goalie of the week — Air Force senior Jason Torf: Appearing in his 92nd and 93rd games, Torf stopped 59 of 62 shots to earn a pair of wins.

Rookie of the week — Sacred Heart’s Mitch Nylen: Nylen scored his first career goal and added an assist in a 3-1 win over Bentley.