Of all the college sports, one stands out as far more grueling than the rest. No, not football. This would be hockey.
Teams begin their preseason workouts, in full pads plus the heavy skating boots, in September. Games start in October, usually two each weekend, with physical pounding from start to finish, not counting practices between each series.
Five months later, in March, playoffs arrive and the upper-echelon teams have to pull together their best, and most consistent, performances. In fact, timing becomes a huge factor in college hockey, because so many teams that looked sharp and even dominant before Christmas have nothing left at the end.
Colorado College and Air Force know all about this point, from both sides. For most of the past five seasons, Air Force has managed to save its best for the end, specifically the Atlantic Hockey Association playoffs. During that same time frame, meanwhile, Colorado College has developed the painful habit of hitting its peak too soon and coming up short in March.
Once again now, the Falcons have put themselves in excellent position, thanks in no small part to another stellar job by head coach Frank Serratore. They've gone 5-1 over the final three weekends of the regular season, sweeping Mercyhurst on the road and Robert Morris at home to finish second in conference play. (Over the past five years, Air Force is a stunning 29-9-1 after Feb. 15.)
That gives the Falcons (16-11-6) a bye and a week off for the first playoff round, before a home quarterfinal series that should send them to the AHA tournament, where two wins would mean a fourth NCAA Tournament berth in five years. That would be a fitting way for AFA senior Jacques Lamoureux to go out, after four years as one of the nation's best forwards. But depth still is Air Force's strongest asset, along with the emergence of freshman goaltender Jason Torf.
CC isn't riding a streak like that, but the Tigers wrapped up their February with an impressive three-point weekend (win and a tie) against highly regarded Minnesota-Duluth. That puts the Tigers sixth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with one week remaining in the regular season, good enough for home ice in the first postseason round, and their 18-15-3 record playing in such a tough league has them No. 14 nationally in the latest PairWise rankings that eventually determine the NCAA field.
In other words, the Tigers have a chance to follow Air Force's example this time. You get the feeling, just from watching, that head coach Scott Owens and his staff have done one of their best jobs with this team.
It hasn't been easy. As usual during Owens' 12 years at the helm, the Tigers made themselves known early, with a six-game WCHA winning streak before Christmas. But after super freshman Jaden Schwartz suffered a broken ankle playing for his native Canada in the world junior tournament during the holidays, CC sputtered through January and much of February. The usual script would be a strong Friday game followed by a frustrating Saturday, though a tie and a loss at lowly Bemidji State two weeks ago hurt the most.
But now Schwartz is back, with teammates who grew into sharing more of the load in his absence. After standing up to Duluth, the Tigers now face a huge trip to Wisconsin this Friday and Saturday to end the WCHA regular season (which goes a week longer than the AHA's). With a split at Madison, CC can hang onto sixth with home ice to start the playoffs, probably against the Badgers again. Lose both, and the Tigers likely would have to go back to Wisconsin next week, facing much tougher odds.
What would it take to make the NCAA tourney field? Most likely, CC needs at least four more wins: one this weekend, two in the first-round playoff series, then at least one more at the WCHA Final Five.
Yes, that's a tall order. But with more dependable depth, and two goalies (soph Joe Howe and freshman Josh Thorimbert) having divided the time to stay fresher down the stretch, the Tigers simply have to show now that they can win big games away from their World Arena ice.
If they can do that, this might be an interesting March for college hockey — on both ends of Colorado Springs.
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