So many times in recent years, we've come into mid-March with Air Force and Colorado College taking separate paths toward the same hoped-for college hockey destination — the NCAA Tournament.
Both programs now expect to have that chance, and not just occasionally. Air Force's breakthrough came in 2007, and since then longtime head coach Frank Serratore has guided the Falcons into the NCAA field five times in six years. CC, after former coach Don Lucia put the Tigers on track with an NCAA berth in 1995, has reached the national tournament 12 times in 17 years, including seven occasions under current coach Scott Owens.
Neither Air Force nor CC made the NCAA last March, though the Tigers came within one goal (losing to Wisconsin in the WCHA Final Five title game) and the Falcons continued their ongoing streak of winning seasons, now at seven in a row.
But the landscape has changed noticeably in the past year.
Air Force once again has earned a bye and home ice to start the Atlantic Hockey Association playoffs, with the dangerous Niagara Purple Eagles coming to Cadet Ice Arena for a best-of-three series starting Friday night. But the Falcons are 20-12-4, and whenever they've reached 20 wins under Serratore, they've wound up in the NCAA.
CC, on the other hand, has lost all equilibrium playing in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Only one Tiger, senior Alexander Krushelnyski, has scored 10 goals — and with little support from others, Krushelnyski's point total has dropped from 43 points (15 goals, 28 assists) a year ago to just 23 now (10-13). Almost every other returning CC player has come up far short of 2012-13 numbers.
The end result: a horrific 6-22-6 regular season, the program's worst record since 8-28-0 in 1992. This weekend the Tigers go on the road to North Dakota for their first-round NCHC series, and they'll need nothing short of a miracle to advance to the league tournament next week in Minneapolis.
Many fans believe this should be the end for Owens after 15 mostly successful years. Given that he's a CC graduate and has had such a long-lasting run, logic would suggest he'll be given another chance — but that's not a certainty, with World Arena crowds having thinned noticeably this winter and with the Tigers losing forwards Krushelnyski, Archie Skalbeck and Jeff Collett, defenseman Eamonn McDermott and goaltender Josh Thorimbert to graduation.
Of course, it doesn't make CC followers feel better when they see Air Force maintaining its winning ways, albeit in a lesser conference.
Serratore simply shuffles the deck every year and produces another winning combination, this time with three juniors — Cole Gunner, Chad Demers and Scott Holm — as the top-producing forwards. Not only that, but the Falcons had to go a lengthy stretch without their rock, senior goaltender Jason Torf, who suffered a torn groin muscle on Dec. 30 and didn't return until February.
That might have decimated some teams, but Serratore merely plugged in freshman Chris Truehl, who responded with an 8-3 record and a superb .921 saves percentage. Torf returned for the final five regular-season games and should be fine now, but Truehl is available if needed.
Air Force found out in 2013 that AHA home playoff series no longer are a sure thing. Canisius came here a year ago this weekend, stunned the Falcons 4-3 on Friday by scoring with 0:09 left, then pulled off another 4-3 shocker the next night. Air Force outshot Canisius in those games 43-26 and 53-25, but still lost — and the Golden Griffins (one of the world's best sports-team nicknames) marched on to win the AHA's spot in the NCAA.
You can be sure Serratore, in all his expletive-laced eloquence, will make bleeping sure these Falcons remember what happened a year ago. He'll remind them that they only managed a split at Niagara just two weeks ago. Yet, they also should realize they have a good shot at the NCAA, given their home sweep of AHA regular-season champion Mercyhurst on Feb. 7-8 with Truehl in the nets.
Bottom line, Colorado Springs hockey fans still have reason to pay attention — but this time, thanks only to Air Force.