Just when you thought the Colorado College and Air Force hockey teams were primed for their season-ending runs, both the Falcons and Tigers stumbled on their own ice last weekend.
Air Force, ending its regular season at home against last-place American International College, suffered through a frustrating 2-2 tie on Friday night before rebounding for a 5-0 shutout on Saturday.
CC, after overcoming a 2-0 deficit for a 5-2 win Friday against Minnesota State, then blew a 2-0 lead of its own Saturday as the visitors from Mankato worked their way to a 3-2 overtime victory.
In the end, Friday's outcome didn't stop the Falcons from grabbing third place entering the Atlantic Hockey Association playoffs. They went 5-3-2 in their final 10 games after losing their star and team leader, Eric Ehn, to a broken leg Jan. 19 against CC. Over the last three regular-season weekends, they went a much more impressive 4-1-1, as head coach Frank Serratore made sure nobody gave up without Ehn.
But they can't afford more slips, starting this weekend with their best-of-three playoff series against Bentley. Just a month ago, Bentley came to Cadet Ice Arena and managed a 4-4 Friday tie before Air Force prevailed 3-1 in the Saturday finale.
Perhaps that tie against AIC will help the Falcons as they shoot for their second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. If they can survive Bentley, they'll be two games away from an NCAA berth at the Atlantic Hockey tournament next weekend at Rochester, N.Y. There, it could become a rematch of last year, when Air Force beat Army for the AHA title.
Colorado College, meanwhile, prolonged its suspense by failing to put away Mankato. Now the Tigers have only a two-point lead over North Dakota entering the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's final weekend.
Clearly, the college hockey world doesn't believe in CC anymore. At least not in comparison with the Fighting Sioux, who are 14-0-1 since their last defeat Jan. 4 and took over this week as No. 1 in the national rankings. CC rates No. 5.
It's hard to argue against North Dakota, which hosts St. Cloud State this weekend while CC plays its traditional home-and-home final series against Denver. DU can't slip below its current spot in third place, but the Pioneers would relish knocking the Tigers off the WCHA throne.
If the Tigers can beat Denver once and finish in a first-place tie, they'll take the No. 1 postseason seed over North Dakota via tiebreaker. The advantage in that would be forcing a potential WCHA Final Five semifinal between North Dakota and Denver, with CC facing a lower-seeded survivor.
Obviously, it had to be embarrassing for the Tigers, blowing that lead to Mankato with the McNaughton Cup available for a celebration. Instead, head coach Scott Owens came away fretting about CC basically being outworked both nights and not being as "hungry" as Mankato. Owens had been critical of the effort Friday night, even after winning.
As a result, now the Tigers have made it more difficult for themselves in terms of potential NCAA Tournament seeding. If they blow the regular-season title and then fail to win the WCHA tournament, they would lose any shot at a No. 1 seed for the West Regional here March 28-29, and they might even fall short of a No. 2 bracket spot.
But having lost two out of their past three home games, the Tigers understand now the World Arena doesn't guarantee them anything. They also should remember the past two years when they lost first-round home series to St. Cloud (2006) and Michigan Tech (2007).
This CC team had seemed different, especially after that road sweep two weeks ago at Minnesota-Duluth. But perhaps the letdown against Mankato was good timing better now than in the playoffs again.
Meanwhile, if the WCHA season title comes down to Saturday night at the World Arena, you'd better have your tickets already. Otherwise, you'll be scalping.
Bits and pieces: Air Force has started spring football practice with head coach Troy Calhoun facing a new set of challenges and expectations coming off that 9-4 season in 2007. The first priority is finding a quarterback to replace Shaun Carney, who provided such a steady presence last year. Whoever emerges, the AFA athletic department has made it as easy as possible for at least one game. Though the schedule hasn't been released, Air Force will open its 2008 season at home against Southern Utah, a Division II program that went 0-11 last year and has a new head coach, Ed Lamb. ...
Registration has begun for the inaugural 2008 State Games of the West, July 24-27 in Colorado Springs, expected to bring 8,000 athletes from 13 states to compete in 31 sports. It's a qualifying event for the 2009 State Games of America (also here) and will be one of three regional events across the nation this summer. For information, go to stategamesofthewest.org. ...
Here's a name to watch this baseball season, perhaps with the Sky Sox: Dexter Fowler. He turns 22 in two weeks but already is considered the Rockies' centerfielder of the future. He's 6-foot-4 with excellent speed and defense, also a switch-hitter capable of batting leadoff. Fowler logically would start this year in Class AA at Tulsa. But he was a non-roster invitee to spring training, giving him the chance to play in some exhibitions before other minor-leaguers even report. Don't be surprised if he's playing here at some point in 2008.
Watch for it
Sports Illustrated's planning a major story in March on cities in the U.S. Olympic movement, obviously including Colorado Springs.
See the headline?
Cubs owner and newspaper mogul Sam Zell says he'd willingly sell naming rights to Wrigley Field, no matter what baseball people think.
On the air
Denver at Colorado College hockey, 7 p.m. Saturday, on Comcast CET (cable channel 4).