Penn State may have had the superior number of shots, but it was the Air Force Academy that knew how to make the most of its opportunities, including getting a goal at just the right time.
Five different Falcons scored goals while goalie Jason Torf did his part by stonewalling the Nittany Lions as Air Force flew to a 5-1 victory Friday night at the Greenberg Ice Pavilion.
“I feel like we got our chances, we’ve just got to bury them,” said junior defenseman Nate Jensen. “We just gave up more costly chances, making their team obviously look a lot better. If we put the puck in the net it’s a different game.”
Casey Kleisinger, Kyle De Laurel, Chad Demers, Stephen Carew and Tony Thomas all found the net for the Falcons (3-3-3) as they handed Penn State goalie PJ Musico his first loss of the season.
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Justin Kirchhevel’s breakaway for a shorthanded goal accounted for the scoring for Penn State (5-3), which had a four-game win streak snapped, including two wins against teams in Air Force’s Atlantic Hockey Association. The teams meet again at 7:30 p.m. today to complete the two-game series.
“They’re a very well coached team,” Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I don’t think they give you any big mistakes. They don’t allow you to get any big chances and I think we did that.”
Carew had the back-breaker, scoring a mere 58 seconds after Kirchhevel to rob any chance of the Nittany Lions grabbing momentum.
Midway through the third, Kirchhevel poked the puck away from a Falcon player near the Lion blue line and skated in alone on Torf, beating the goalie with a wrist shot for his first score of the season.
“It’s definitely bitter-sweet,” Kirchhevel said. “I got my first goal out of the way, got the monkey off my back, but we didn’t get the ‘W’ tonight.”
But Carew had the answer while still on the power play, holding the puck near the blue line with an open alley all the way to the net, he fired a shot on which Musico barely moved.
“That hurt,” Gadowsky said. “... Even at 3-0, to make it 3-1, regardless that it was a shirt-handed goal, that’s a big goal and we were coming and we had some opportunities that weren’t going in. We were hoping that would sort of open the flood gates.”
Penn State held a 35-24 advantage in shots, but there weren’t a high number of quality chances and very few rebound opportunities, which had been a strength of the team during the win streak.
“We didn’t get much in front of the net, but I wouldn’t necessarily attribute it to bad bounces,” Gadowsky said. “We didn’t get a lot of second chances at the net and we didn’t get a lot of initial shots in the house. It’s not because the puck was bouncing poorly for us. They did a great job of controlling in front of the net on their turf, but we can do a better job of getting to the net.”
The Falcons got the best of Musico, who made 19 saves.
“We didn’t have our best night on defense,” Gadowsky said. “Not only did we make mistakes in changes and blunders in a controlled breakout, but we didn’t do a lot with the puck either.”
Still, even with the decisive margin on the scoreboard, you wouldn’t have guessed who won by listening to Air Force coach Frank Serratorre.
“Penn State deserved a better fate,” the 16-year coach said. “If we play that way (today), that score’s going to be — I guarantee you — turned around because we’ve got a better chance of hitting the Powerball than we do of winning again playing that poorly.”
Kleisinger started the scoring, taking the puck from Max Hartner, walking in from the blue line and sending a wrist shot past Musico without any pressure from the Lion defense.
“That goal happened because we blew a change,” Gadowsky said. “It’s a tough one. It’s a mental mistake.”
A 2-on-1 break led to the second goal, with Ben Carey sending the puck up to Cole Gunner, who skated toward the right circle, spun with a defender behind him and found De Laurel alone for a one-timer.
Demers pounced on a rebound for the third score, hitting a wide open net after Musico stopped John Kruse from a tight angle.
With Penn State pulling Musico for an extra attacker with just under five minutes left, Thomas added an empty-net score, putting in a rebound of Demers’ shot that was wide but bounced off the boards to Thomas.
“I thought we were in the game,” Gadowsky said of his reasoning to pull Musico so early. “... We still thought if we got another one we were still in it. When it’s down 4-1, I don’t think it helps you to pull the goalie with 45 seconds left to make it 4-2. We wanted to win that thing and I honestly felt we could.”