Ledford, Air Force oust NCAA tournament top seed St. Cloud State in opening round

Billy Christopoulos made 39 saves in Air Force’s victory over St. Cloud State (photo: Jim Rosvold).

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — For the 13th straight season, a No. 4 regional seed defeated a No. 1 seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

For only the second time in 16 seasons of a 16-team NCAA tournament, however, it was the top overall seed falling.

Tyler Ledford scored twice, and Air Force ousted St. Cloud State 4-1 on Friday in the West Regional at the Denny Sanford Premier Center.

“We were picked to win our league this year by both the coaches and the media,” Falcons coach Frank Serratore said. “It just didn’t seem like it was going to be our year. We had over 200 man games lost to injuries. We had two defensemen playing our fourth line today. This group just refuses to surrender.”

Huskies goalie David Hrenak was halfway to his bench with time ticking away when St. Cloud State turned the puck over to Jordan Himley and conceded to put Air Force up 3-1. The fourth goal was also an empty netter by Kyle Haak.

The Falcons joined Rochester Institute of Technology, which in 2015 ousted top overall seed Minnesota State in the opening round.

The Falcons’ Billy Christopoulos made 39 spectacular saves to supplement the winning effort. Many of those saves came in key moments where the Huskies started to get the puck moving — including one breakaway opportunity.

“This is not the best group I have brought to the national tournament, but collectively they’ve got something special,” Serratore said. “They are one heck of a team and we’ve got a red-hot goaltender behind it all.”

Serratore was in good company, having close relationships with coaching staff from the other three teams in the regional. With the win over SCSU, his former assistant at Denver during the 1993-94 season, Bob Motzko, now coach of SCSU, is out with an early exit. Huskies assistant coach Mike Gibbons was also under Frank Serratore in Denver from 1990 to 1994.

The Huskies ended the first period on a barrage while a staggering Mikey Eyssimont attempted to corral a faceoff draw and shoot for the net. It took some time but SCSU found their forecheck in the latter half of the frame. Christopoulos put up spectacular back-to-back saves with seconds ticking away.

“You have to congratulate Air Force, Frank [Serratore] and staff,” Motzko said. “Their goalie, that may have been one of the better goalie performances I have seen in a long time.”

Air Force had the better of the opportunities despite there not being many quality shot chances for either side. A lot of it had to do with blocking lanes and turnovers, but more so, blocked shots.

“They were selling out. Thirty blocked shots — that’s incredible,” said SCSU forward Robby Jackson. “We felt like once we had puck possession, that was really the only thing missing is getting shots to the net. They were diving, putting their throats in front of the puck on multiple occasions, I saw.”

A two-goal, second-period blitz by Air Force stunned the Huskies. Ledford was the ace for the Falcons as he scored twice and nearly had a hat trick by the end of the period.

Ledford batted in a floating puck that beat Hrenak at 2:57 of the second; video review didn’t change the on-ice goal call.

A broken play resulted in the Huskies failing to clear the puck near the point. Air Force capitalized on the turnover at 6:29 of the second as Ledford received a feed from Matt Koch and changed the puck’s direction with his stick blade to make it 2-0.