Everything that local college hockey fans have felt about Air Force and Colorado College during this up-and-down winter stood out on full display last weekend.
Air Force, after months of battling its way up the Atlantic Hockey Association standings, suddenly closed out its regular-season schedule with a stunning home sweep of nationally ranked Niagara, 5-2 and 6-1. Those outcomes, especially the second one, sent a clear signal that the Falcons have a shot once again at earning the AHA's bid to the NCAA Tournament — which had looked to be a near-certainty for Niagara.
Air Force wound up second to Niagara entering the playoffs, but if it comes down to one last game in a few weeks at the conference tournament with that NCAA berth on the line, the Falcons have the mental edge now.
Meanwhile, down I-25 on the World Arena ice, Colorado College was demonstrating once again why it's a year away from resurfacing as a team worthy of NCAA dreams. In their final home series, the Tigers broke out late to whip Minnesota State Mankato by a 4-1 score on Friday — then suffered a 7-2 thumping on Saturday.
That means CC can finish no better than eighth in its final Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season, regardless of what happens in its last pre-playoff series this week at Michigan Tech. And with the standings still so jumbled above them, the Tigers' first-round postseason opponent, on the road, could be Mankato, Wisconsin, Nebraska-Omaha or Denver.
We knew all along, starting with bleak preseason predictions in the WCHA and warnings from head coach Scott Owens, that CC would be inexperienced and inconsistent this year, and an 0-6-1 stretch from Dec. 1 into January officially confirmed that. But now, after going 4-2-3 in their past nine games, the Tigers could pull a surprise or two in the playoffs. Just don't expect them to win the WCHA's postseason tournament and its Broadmoor Trophy, which CC hasn't been able to hoist — ever.
That Broadmoor Trophy is a story unto itself. It was donated by the Broadmoor in 1981 to go to the WCHA's regular-season champion, replacing the MacNaughton Cup. Michigan Tech, which technically "owned" the cup, left the league in 1981 for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and took it to the CCHA. Three years later, when Tech returned to the WCHA, the MacNaughton Cup came back as well, again going to the regular-season champion — and the Broadmoor Trophy has gone to the WCHA postseason champion ever since.
Just one problem: That trophy (redesigned in 2010 by Blue Ribbon Trophies of Colorado Springs) never has resided in its birthplace. Even when the Tigers came so close to national titles in the past two decades, they couldn't pull off that WCHA tourney title. And now, with the WCHA splintering (thanks to the Big Ten) and Colorado College heading for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, this likely will be the final chance — unless the NCHC decides to pursue obtaining the trophy from the WCHA. It still could happen, but don't count on it. Too bad, since hockey usually appreciates its history.
So now Colorado College looks to be no more than a short-term spoiler in March, while Air Force gears up for another playoff run in the less prestigious AHA.
AFA head coach Frank Serratore has become a master at this, and he's been smartly realistic to make sure his program doesn't try to "move up" into an elite conference where the Falcons likely would be in over their head.
The result has been steady success at Air Force, while CC has remained respectable but constantly challenged when facing elite programs with far more resources.
How far can the Falcons go this time? And will the Tigers make more noise than anyone expects?
It should make for an eventful March — as always.