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Special year on the ice? 

End Zone

You know something's different when Air Force opens its college hockey season at the prominent Icebreaker tournament in Grand Forks, N.D., nearly knocks off host North Dakota on the first night, then leads into the final minutes again before falling in overtime to Michigan State in the consolation game.

Two close, honorable losses, yet AFA head coach Frank Serratore came away from both with sharp-edged anger, saying the Falcons were "way beyond moral victories."

And you know something's different when Colorado College lays an impressive 5-0 exhibition whipping on the U.S. under-18 national team, then the players and head coach Scott Owens talk about needing to play much better.

Air Force and CC share a lot in common at this point: Both have been picked second in their leagues, Air Force in the Atlantic Hockey Association, Colorado College in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Both bring optimism into the 2011-12 schedule, after making it to the NCAA Tournament last March.

The two crosstown programs, as different as two schools could be, will have their annual meeting on Dec. 30 at Colorado Springs World Arena. But that game won't mean a huge amount to the Falcons or Tigers, because they have much bigger goals for the months ahead.

In fact, this could turn into the best collective season for college hockey that Colorado Springs has enjoyed in a long time, if not ever.

CC has high expectations based largely on the presence of sophomore forward Jaden Schwartz, named by the WCHA coaches as the league's preseason player of the year. He's an all-around standout, with superb instincts and skills, and he showed that potential last year when — despite missing a chunk of time with a fractured ankle — he still totaled 47 points (17 goals, 30 assists) in just 30 games. Jaden's brother, Rylan Schwartz, ranks as the team's No. 2 returning scorer.

But the Tigers will be hardly a one-line team. They also have offensive firepower from the likes of seniors Nick Dineen, David Civitarese and Tim Hall; juniors William Rapuzzi, Scott Winkler and Andrew Hamburg, and sophomores Alexander Krushelnyski, Archie Skalbeck and Dakota Eveland. That's almost enough to fill four lines, even without the incoming freshmen

Add to that the presence of goaltenders Joe Howe and Josh Thorimbert, plus a defense anchored by senior Gabe Guentzel, sophomore Eamonn McDermott, junior Joe Marciano and well-regarded freshmen Peter Stoykewych and Aaron Harstad.

Now you begin to see why CC has been ranked as high as No. 4 nationally in preseason polls, with its opening series here this weekend against Bemidji State. But you won't hear big talk out of Owens or anybody else, other than to say that they're hopeful.

It's the same at Air Force, despite losing one of its greatest stars ever, forward Jacques Lamoureux, to graduation. Lamoureux will be missed, but the Falcons still have plenty of experienced forwards and defensemen, along with sophomore goaltender Jason Torf.

The goal-scoring will have to be spread evenly among a group that includes juniors Kyle DeLaurell and John Kruse, senior Paul Weisgarber and sophomore Jason Fabian, all of whom tallied 10 to 13 goals last season. If one or two of them can push it up closer to 20 goals, that'll make a big difference.

Air Force's main strength, though, should be its defensive corps, which stood up well against North Dakota and Michigan State until the very end. Seniors Tim Kirby and Scott Mathis, along with juniors Mike Walsh and Stephen Carew plus sophomore Adam McKenzie, know what it's like to play against the AHA as well as the nation's elite.

We'll find out more about the Falcons this weekend, as the unusual league schedule gives them single home games against Niagara on Friday and Robert Morris on Sunday. If they can put their Icebreaker frustrations behind them, and if Torf can rebound quickly from a pulled groin muscle that he suffered against Michigan State, Air Force could send an imposing signal to the rest of the AHA.

Both of these teams are fully planning to be around for the next NCAA Tournament. So now is the time to build confidence and momentum for the long road ahead.

And if you care at all about college hockey, this season will be worth paying closer attention to both ends of Colorado Springs.

routon@csindy.com

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