We begin the preview today with a note from the editor, as I will always be impartial on this here blog but my cousin is a member of the Air Force Falcons. Kyle Haak, who will be a junior forward this season, is my cousin which I am incredibly proud of but also benefits me in writing this preview. Just like MSU has been my lifetime team affording me more knowledge of the Spartans, following Air Force these last two seasons has given me more knowledge than I ever had about Atlantic Hockey.
Last season was an incredibly special season for the Falcons, possibly the best season for an Atlantic Hockey team since RIT made their magical run to the Frozen Four in 2010. The 27 wins for Air Force last year was the best since 2008-09, a year when Air Force also won a 1st round NCAA game against a team from Michigan (UM in 20009, Western Michigan last season). The Falcons, who had a chance to win the regular season title on the last game of the year before losing to Sacred Heart, made a run in the league tournament to secure an NCAA bid. An out of conference win over Boston College and ties against Ohio State and Western Michigan on the road had played the Falcons to the bubble of an at-large berth to the tournament. The Falcons even played Denver to a one goal loss last season.
The Falcons return an incredibly tight and special junior class this season that hit their stride last season. The Falcons will have chances out of conference to pick up key pairwise points against Bemidji State and Denver but like last year will probably need an Atlantic Hockey Playoff Championship to return to the NCAA Tournament. What looked like a clear favorite last April, quickly turned into a foggy future when super goaltender Shane Starrett signed an NHL contract with the Edmonton Oilers, foregoing his final two years of eligibility. Air Force will still be in the mix for the top of the league but will have more questions to answer to repeat as champions.
Air Force may have had Shane Starrett lead the way as the backbone of the team in net, but that would undersell their ability to put the puck in the net themselves. The Falcons averaged 3.17 goals per game (17th nationally) and featured five players with 25 points or more. All five of those players will be back for the Falcons which could be a huge help in offsetting the loss of Starrett.
Advanced stats show that Air Force was not a lucky team to post these offensive numbers either. The Falcons had a middling power play (18.13% 33rd nationally). Air Force was 12th nationally in Corsi For (53.8%) and 8th in CF-Close at 54.5%. This was a team who was comfortable playing in close games, maintaining position and being able to take some chances with such a leader in their crease.
Air Force was led on defense last season by junior Phil Boje, who was 2nd on the team in +/- at at +16 and added a 9-21-30 line in 41 games played. Boje is a great two-way defensemen who has really developed his defensive strengths after a junior career with Dubuque of the USHL. The Falcons return all but one defensemen from a team that led the entire country in penalty killing last season. If anything can help steady a team losing a goaltender, experience on defense and a penalty kill that takes the pressure off can do it.
(OK the thirty second mark is some nepotism at it’s finest here)
So as you have probably figured out by now, replacing Starrett is the big storyline coming into this season. So who is it that the responsibility will fall to? Billy Christopoulos is the only other goaltender to appear in any games last season posting a .901 save percentage and 2.79 goals against average in eight appearances. Christopoulos is not as big as the 6’5″ Starrett but has decent size at 6’2″ and 194 pounds. Will Ulrich will be a freshman coming from the NAHL and if he is getting more starts as the season goes on that is likely not a good thing for the Falcons. They will want Christopoulos to grab the net early and run with the job.
Player to Watch- Leading scorer Jordan Himley finally broke through last season as a junior with the scoring prowess he showed in the NAHL. Himley scored 22 goals and 37 points to outpace his production from his first two seasons combined. Himley will be leaned on as a senior leader and is a huge piece to Air Force’s season outlook.
Breakout Player to Watch- Brady Tomlak returns to Air Force after posting a 5-13-18 line in 38 games played. Air Force is a veteran team so it is unlikely Tomlak will see increased minutes but this is a consistent team from top to bottom and if Tomlak can find depth scoring like he did in the NAHL it will be important to the Falcons.
Freshman to Watch- This is a veteran laden roster where a freshman won’t be counted on to jump in right away. Alex Mehnert is a defensemen coming from the Omaha Lancers who I could see finding his way into the lineup as a good 2-way player.