In a game of huge momentum swings, Air Force prevailed over top-seeded Sacred Heart, 5-4, in overtime in the first semifinal of the Atlantic Hockey championships.
In a fine debut for the tournament’s new site at the Blue Cross Arena, Air Force took a 3-1 lead into the third period only to see Sacred Heart storm back with three goals in the first 7:50, followed by an Air Force extra-attacker goal with 54.4 seconds left to force overtime.
“It was a great college hockey game,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said.
AFA’s Josh Print won the game at 8:04 of the extra period when he deflected a shot from the blueline.
“I have to give all the credit to the guys for working so hard,” Print said. “[Greg] Flynn made a great play to keep it in at the blueline. He then shot it at the net, and I just tipped it.”
Print was in the slot area when he got his stick on it, and Jason Smith didn’t stand a chance reacting to the sudden redirection.
“Smitty did a good job,” Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah said. “Air Force did a great job getting traffic in front. Can’t fault Smitty at all.”
The Falcons got to overtime thanks to Billy Devoney, whose shot from the left point somehow found its way in after hitting bodies on the way.
“I’m not much of a goal scorer,” Devoney said. “Its the kind of play where I got the puck on the wall. I initially saw [Andrew] Ramsey at the back door. He was wide open. As soon as I looked at it, two of their guys came out. So I fired on the net. I guess it hit a few players on the way. Then I saw sticks go up.”
The game started out with most thinking Air Force would not need overtime to win. They jumped out to 2-0 and 3-1 leads. However, only the first goal came in the opening period as a result of a lack of alertness by Smith.
A shot went wide of the net to Smith’s left side. However, Smith didn’t keep track of the puck and did not knock it away when it bounced off the boards and back out, enabling Brett Nylander to backhand a shot from just outside the crease. Smith saved it, but the rebound stayed in the crease and Jay Medenwaldt banged it home.
Sacred Heart had its chances in the first period, including Eric Giosa being alone in front while shorthanded, but could not beat Ben Worker.
Air Force made it 2-0 41 seconds into the second period on the power play. The shot from the right point was deflected on the way in. Mike Phillipich got credit for the goal.
The teams then traded goals, both on beautiful backhanders.
First, the Pioneers got one back when Bear Trapp scored at 7:33. His initial forehand was stopped with a difficult save by Worker, but Trapp hustled out to get his own rebound and lifted a backhander over the goalie.
The Falcons regained the two-goal lead at 17:00. Matt Fairchild had just enough room on the near side above Smith’s shoulder to fit the puck and he did so, with a backhander no less. It was the second goal from the fourth line. That group played more like the first line, which was neutralized by Sacred Heart’s checking line.
“We were opportunistic and they were not,” Serratore said of the first two periods. “We got some bounces and took advantage of our bounces.”
The momentum immediately swung the other way right at the start of the third period with an early penalty against Air Force.
Paul Ferraro scored at 1:18 with a shot from the left side that went in on the opposite side.
“We just came out firing,” Hannah said. “A goal like that really sparked our team. We started playing our game.”
Less than three minutes later, and the game was tied. David Jarman scored on a blast from the right faceoff circle with an assist from Eric Giosa. Those two players would reverse their roles three minutes after that.
“After the first two periods, it’s just heartbreaking to be out there,” Worker said. “I hate to let my guys down, but with our team we just don’t give up.”
First, however, Sacred Heart took the lead when Giosa blasted one through from the slot with Jarman getting the assist.
After Sacred Heart killed two successive penalties late in the third period, including a five-on-three for 31 seconds, Air Force pulled the goalie which allowed Devoney to score his tying goal.
“It was real quiet,” captain Devoney said of the locker room scene before overtime. “It wasn’t too high; it wasn’t too low. Everybody knew what they had to do.”
“Josh Print came through,” Serratore said. “I was disappointed in his play in the first. I got in his face a little bit. It was great to see him get rewarded.”
Asked what Print might get for scoring the game winner, Devoney said, “Nothing. We’re not satisfied yet.”
That’s because Air Force (18-15-5) still has to play for the Atlantic Hockey championship against the winner of the Connecticut-Army game for the automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs.
Sacred Heart ends its season at 21-11-4.