SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Air Force goalie Billy Christopoulos made 39 saves as Air Force defeated No. 1 St. Cloud State, 4-1, at the NCAA West Regional at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. With the win, Air Force advances to the NCAA Elite Eight for the second straight season and the third time in school history. The Falcons' defeated the nation's No. 1 team for the first time in school history. It is the ninth time in the last 11 years the Falcons have beaten a team ranked in the top five in the nation.
Air Force will face third-seeded, and 11th-ranked, Minnesota Duluth in the regional final, Saturday, March 24, at 8:02 pm CT. The winner advances to the NCAA Frozen Four, April 5-7, in St. Paul, Minn. UMD defeated Minnesota State, 3-2 in overtime, in the other regional final. The game will be televised live on ESPN2.
The first period was scoreless, but each team had a couple chances. Falcon winger Evan Giesler had a breakaway that was saved by David Hrenak with just over 14 minutes left. About two minutes later, Blake Lizotte had a breakaway that was saved by Billy Christopoulos. Late in the period, Christopoulos made two big saves on a 2-on-1 rush, stopping Jack Poehling and Easton Brodzinski on the rush.
The Falcons scored two goals in a span of 3:30 early in the second period. Senior Tyler Ledford put the Falcons on the board at 2:57 as he forced a turnover in the Husky end and then batted the puck out of the air, and off of Hrenak, for a 1-0 lead. Ledford's second of the game, sixth of the season, put the Falcons up 2-0 at 6:29. Erik Baskin forced a turnover and Matt Koch collected the puck in the slot. Koch saw Ledford slashing to the net from the right side. Ledford redirected Koch's pass for a 2-0 lead. SCSU outshot AF, 18-11, in the second period.
Early in the third period, Christopoulos again came up big for the Falcons. With the Huskies on the power play, Ryan Poehling, a first-round pick of Montreal, found some space at the bottom of the right circle, but Christopoulos slid to his left and made a glove save that kept the game scoreless. With under three minutes left, the Huskies got on the board. Patrick Newell's pass was redirected by Blake Lizotte with 2:51 left to cut the Falcon lead to 2-1.
With under two minutes left, Hrenak started to leave the ice. Just before he was off, the Falcons gained control of the puck in the neutral zone. Matt Serratore flipped the puck to a wide open Jordan Himley at center ice. Himley's empty-netter gave the Falcons a 3-1 lead with 1:34 left. After the ensuing faceoff, Hrenak came off the ice and the Falcons capitalized again. Serratore gave the puck to Kyle Haak who sealed the 4-1 win with 47 seconds left.
St. Cloud State outshot Air Force, 40-26. The Falcons were 0-for-1 on the power play while SCSU was 0-for-3. Hrenak made 22 saves for the Huskies. Christopoulos' 39 saves are third most of his career. The Falcons blocked a season high 29 shots, led by senior Phil Boje who tied his career high with nine.
Air Force is now 3-6 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. The Falcons advanced to the Elite Eight in 2009 with a win over Michigan and again in 2017 with a win over Western Michigan. The Falcons have won a season-best four straight games and are 8-2-1 in the last 11 games.
"We have a good team and we have a red-hot goalie," head coach Frank Serratore said. "With all the injuries we have had this season, it didn't seem like it was going to be our year. But this group just refuses to surrender. This might not be the best group of individuals I've ever brought to the national tournament, but it might be the best team. They've got something special. SCSU is one hell of a hockey team and they are very well coached. We got some fortunate bounces today and that's hockey."