Sioux Falls, SD – In my West Region preview I suggested the Huskies not fall behind early requiring a third period comeback. Unfortunately for the #1 ranked Huskies it became their nightmare as they fell behind by a 2-0 score in period two, mounted a comeback in period three and then yielded two empty net goals in a 4-1 upset by Air Force. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised as the Falcons, 3-6 in all-time NCAA play have a history of being a tough matchup in this tourney. In this game, Air Force relied on stellar goaltending by Junior Billy Christopoulos who turned aside 39 of 40 shots on goal with a number of head shakers as the lowest seeded team in the tournament once again became giant killers. Colorado Springs native, Tyler Ledford was the offensive hero scoring both early goals for his hometown team. For the Huskies it was a quick end to a post-season filled with promise and dreams of a Frozen Four appearance in St. Paul.
The first period turned out to be a chess match with the Falcons surprisingly going toe to toe with SCSU and showing that they too could get up and down the ice with speed. The first period ended in a 0-0 draw with the Falcons having more legitimate scoring opportunities than the Huskies. The Huskies outshot the Falcons 10-8 but were 0 for 2 on the power play which was another boost for the defensive-oriented Air Force. “We knew they were going to come hard. We prepared for it all week at practice. That was frustrating but we tried to stay the course” said Junior forward Robby Jackson. Said Coach Motzko “We were nervous in the first period – that first power play was nerves.”
The second period was just what the doctor ordered for the Falcons. An unfortunate turnover by the reliable Jimmy Schuldt less than 3 minutes into the period was chipped into the air by Ledford who then took a baseball swing from near shoulder-high sending it past an unsuspecting David Hrenak who had no chance on the play. It was subsequently reviewed for a high stick and although the TV broadcast seemed to confirm it was indeed a high stick the officials did not have the luxury of that view and ruled it a good goal. Less than four minutes later at 6:29 Ledford struck again getting behind the SCSU defense, fielding a pass from Matt Koch and beating Hrenak for an improbable 2-0 AFA lead. The stunned Huskies picked up the pace throughout the second half of the period and despite throwing 18 shots on goal was unable to solve Christopoulos. “The second period, it was crazy the chances we got. The one with Mikey (Eyssimont) at the back door, which our bench was in line with…that save that he made. We made a couple of mistakes early in the game. It hurt to get down, but we did everything imaginable to get back in the game.”
The Third period was once again all SCSU as wave after wave of attacks either had their shots blocked by the Air Force defense or continuing impressive saves by Christopoulus. SCSU finally beat Christopoulos with 2:51 remaining in the contest on a goal by Blake Lizotte ( Newell | Borgen). On a nice rush into the Air Force zone Patrick Newell fed Blake Lizotte from the right sidewall and he tapped it in at the doorstep to cut the Falcon lead to 2-1. Suddenly it appeared the Huskies had ample time to tie up the game with close to three minutes remaining in regulation and all the momentum on their side. However, some miscommunication between Hrenak and the bench had Hrenak skating halfway to the bench and then trying to recover realizing Air Force gained control of the puck and was charging towards the SCSU goal. Hrenak was too late and Jordan Himley put the game out of reach at 3-1 with less than two minutes remaining. The Falcons added another empty net goal at 19:12 for the 4-1 final.
Coach Motzko commented “You have to congratulate Air Force, Frank and his staff. I mean, my goodness, they blocked 30 shots tonight and their goalie…that may be one of the better goalie performances I’ve seen in a long time.They’re a very difficult team to play against and I thought we battled tooth and nail. The way they sold out to defend that game, it was a remarkable effort by Air Force.”
Said Robby Jackson “They were selling out, diving, putting their throats in front of pucks on multiple occasions. We just couldn’t get anything through. Their goalie made 40 saves and their players made 40. It’s miserable. I don’t know how to put it in words. I didn’t think I’d ever hurt worse than when we lost to Ferris State a couple of years ago and here we are. Every single guy in that locker room’s got tears in their eyes and rightfully so. We battled tooth and nail and couldn’t solve the goalie.”
SCSU outshot the Falcons 40-26 in the contest. In an outstanding performance, Billy Christopoulos stopped 39 of 40 shots on goal to pick up his 23rd win of the season. David Hrenak stopped 22 of 24 in a losing effort to see his record dip to 14-7-2. The Huskies finish the season with a 25-9-6 record.