Hanover, NH -- Air Force set out Monday night to prove that Sunday's 5-2 victory over No. 16 Northeastern was not a fluke. Frank Serratore's team did just that with a 3-2 triumph over No. 4 Providence to earn the championship trophy of the Ledyard Bank Classic.
"Going into tonight we knew [Providence] was number one in the RPI. We were excited and wanted to prove that [Sunday] against Northeastern wasn't a fluke," said Air Force junior forward Cole Gunner.
Air Force dominated five of the six periods it played on the weekend. The Falcons were up 2-0 through two periods Monday night and had outshot Providence, 27-12.
The Falcons displayed skill and executed their game plan to perfection, but the team's commitment to sacrificing the body for the betterment of the team was equally impressive.
"I'm real proud of our effort and spirit. For five of the six periods we simply outworked our opponents. We outworked Northeastern for three periods last night and outworked Providence for two periods tonight. There is a reason Providence is number four in the country and number one in the Pairwise. They weren't going to go away quietly," said Air Force coach Frank Serratore.
Air Force controlled play for much of the first period, but it wasn't until a power play opportunity late in the frame that the Falcons took advantage. Like all three of the goals on the night the man advantage tally came on a transition play.
Scott Holm started the play up ice feeding Cole Gunner who used his speed to break into the Providence zone. Two Providence defenders collided taking out Gunner, but leaving Chad Demers free to deflect the puck in past Providence goaltender Nick Ellis.
Midway through the second period Providence had a golden opportunity with a two-man advantage to even the score, but Air Force's penalty kill and will to win kept the Friars out of the net. Star defenseman Adam McKenzie made two consecutive huge blocks on the kill.
"Obviously it was a big moment in the game. That's what our whole team would have done. We have to block shots. I just laid down and it hit me," said McKenzie. "The guy who blocks the shots gets just as many kudos as the guy who scores a goal. It's a big part of our room and everyone is willing to block shots and sacrifice for the team," added the captain.
Just nine seconds after the penalty kill ended Air Force struck pay dirt at the other end. Tournament MVP Mitch Torrel picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and raced into the zone on the right side and roofed a shot that beat Ellis above his glove.
"Mitch is playing with a ton of confidence right now. His main asset is his shot. He shoots it like a pro. He shoots it the best on our team," said Serratore. "Fortunately the puck got on his stick at the right time this weekend and he was able to convert," added the 17 year bench boss of the Air Force program.
Providence through everything but the kitchen sink at Air Force in the third period and was able to catch the Falcons sitting back on the lead.
Defenseman Steven Shamanski used an Air Force defender as a screen to wrist one past Air Force goaltender Jason Torf at the 4:57 mark of the final period.
With mounting pressure from Providence, Tony Thomas gave the Falcons some much needed insurance when he finished off a beautiful passing sequence. A.J. Reid zipped a pass to George Michalke who backhanded back to Thomas who quickly deposited the puck into the back of the net.
The goal was yet another goal in transition for the Falcons on the tournament. "That's a big part of our game. We don't like to play in our own end. We just try to get pucks up and ice and get moving and play quick. It worked really well for us this weekend and got a lot going on the rush," said McKenzie.
Providence coach Nate Leaman pulled Nick Ellis for an extra attacker. The move pulled off with 1:30 to play in the game when Noel Acciari banged home a loose puck in the slot, but the Friars couldn't bury the equalizer over the final 90 seconds of the game.
Torf was tremendous between the pipes for Air Force, stopping 29 shots, including 17 in the final frame.
"Torf has been huge for us all year. He was phenomenal. He hurt his groin at the end, but he kept fighting through it. He's been huge for us all year and we know he is going to keep being great going forward," said McKenzie.
"We had the will to win. We know Torf has won some big games for us so if we can block shots for him it's huge," said Gunner.
"We paid a price to win that game: the blocked shots on the five-on-three, we lost Ben Carey with a separated shoulder, we might have lost Jason Torf, and Jason Fabian [with that block at the end]," said Serratore.
Air Force (9-5-4) hopes that this tournament championship will propel the team to an even better second half.
"For us this is just the beginning. We had an up and down first half. We ended on a slide. We came out energized and played really well this weekend. We're going to use this momentum to propel us on to a good second half," said McKenzie.
Air Force players have a much more rigorous schedule than the typical collegiate athlete. Air Force players must balance their school work and their military commitment with the desire to perform at a high level on the ice. It takes a lot out of the players so the holiday break might have served the team well.
"The break came at a good time. It was good to regroup mentally and physically. We had to stay on it and bring energy," said Torrel.
Air Force has made the NCAA Tournament five of the past seven seasons, including the 2009 NCAA Tournament that saw the Falcons upset Michigan in the first round before falling to Vermont in double overtime in the regional final.
"We're definitely underrated right now. We have a lot of guys with talent. We're going to be the hardest working team on the ice night in and night out. If we stick to that we're going to be a contender," said Torrel.
"There is no question we were by far the best team on the ice for the first five periods we played this tournament," said Serratore.
Leaman certainly would not disagree. "They outworked us and out-executed us for the first 40 minutes. We dug ourselves a hole. We thought we could turn it on in the third. It's disappointing."
"The number one stat of the game was the blocked shots. We blocked one shot all game. They won the game on blocked shots," added the third year coach of the Friars.
Providence returns to action Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park with a game against Merrimack.
Air Force will not travel back to Colorado Springs this week as the Falcons take on American International for a pair next weekend in nearby Springfield, Mass. The Falcons will spend a day in Boston before traveling out to Springfield.
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Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting, NHL Draft prospects and the AHL for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.