Two-tenths of a second, and an inch or two, is all that separated the UAA hockey team from victory Saturday night.
But the 3-3 tie the Seawolves battled for against Air Force at Sullivan Arena was still enough to secure the Kendall Hockey Classic trophy for the second straight year.
“It’s tough to tie that way,” UAA goalie Rob Gunderson said. “But, you know, we won our tournament. ... It doesn’t feel as sweet as it would if we had won the game.”
UAA fought back from an early two-goal deficit and was in position to beat the Falcons after Alex Gellert’s goal with 5:27 remaining.
Then came Air Force’s last-second dramatics.
With the final seconds ticking down, the Falcons had two extra attackers — one due to a power play, another from having pulled their goalkeeper — when senior wing John Kruse fired the puck from near the end-line towards the Seawolves’ goal. It ricocheted off a player and back to him. His last-ditch effort miraculously succeeded as he shot the puck off Gunderson and it dribbled into the net as the final horn sounded.
Officials spent several minutes reviewing the play because they had to determine whether the puck crossed the goal line and whether it did so before the buzzer.
The ruling came back affirmative on both questions, so Kruse’s goal with 0.2 seconds remaining counted.
“Unfortunately it bounced off my foot,” said Gunderson, who allowed a pair of goals in the first eight minutes and then regrouped to make 20 saves. “I think it did cross the line. I was hoping (it was after the buzzer). I heard that buzzer the same time as I swiped at it.”
To secure the tournament title with a win and a tie, UAA had to survive overtime against a buoyed Air Force squad.
“When they scored, we knew we couldn’t go down. We knew we had another five minutes to go,” said Gellert, who was named to the all-tournament team along with teammates Derek Docken and Matt Bailey, the Classic’s Most Outstanding Player.
Gellert ensured his selection on a goal that followed what he called a “lucky bounce.”
Gellert grabbed a loose puck, streaked toward the net and fired a shot from the left circle past Air Force goalie Jason Torf to produce the biggest cheer of the night from the announced crowd of 3,839.
“I think they were in the midst of a (shift) change and it bounced off one of their guys’ skates and popped out nicely for me,” Gellert said. “So I just went in and tried to put it on net.”
The tournament win was UAA’s seventh in the 22 years of the Classic. The Seawolves repeated as champions for the first time since 2004-05.
Air Force struck for a pair of unassisted goals before the Seawolves even managed to register their first shot.
At 1:36, senior center Stephen Carew eluded a UAA defender, skated into the slot from the left circle and fired a shot that sneaked just under the crossbar on Gunderson’s glove side.
At 7:51, Air Force junior left wing Tony Thomas picked up a loose puck at mid-ice and flung it on net from near the blue line. Somehow it eluded Gunderson and found pay dirt on his glove side.
“The second one absolutely fooled me. It just knuckle-pucked me,” Gunderson said. “It kind of spun out of my way. I wish I would have had that one back.”
Gunderson got his first start of the season a night after junior Chris Kamal shut out Canisius 2-0 in the Seawolves’ tournament and season-opener Friday night.
Gunderson, a junior, made some amends by starting the play that led to UAA’s first shot after an almost unheard of 12 minutes and 8 seconds.
With Air Force on a shift change, Gunderson earned his third career assist by alertly sending a long pass to Bailey along the boards. Bailey skated into the Air Force zone and dropped the puck for senior wing Jordan Kwas, whose slap shot from the right circle beat Torf.
Bailey, the Seawolves’ assistant captain, tied the score 2-2 at 9:38 of the second period with an unassisted, shorthanded tally. After Air Force defenseman Adam McKenzie misplayed a puck along the near boards, Bailey pounced on the puck behind him and buried a breakaway for his first goal of the young season.
Shots were at a premium for UAA all night against Air Force, which allowed among the fewest in the nation last season. The Seawolves recorded just six shots through two period before finishing with 14, half of them in the third period. The fewest number of shots in a game for the Seawolves last season was 13 against Minnesota State.
Air Force, of the Atlantic Hockey Association, has reached the NCAA Tournament in five of the last six seasons but leaves Anchorage only with ties against UAA and UAF.
Canisius defeated UAF 3-1 in Saturday’s opening game which guaranteed that the outcome of the UAA-Air Force matchup would determine the tournament champion.
UAA travels to Fairbanks next week and will meet North Dakota and Merrimack at the Brice Alaska Goal Rush, where the Seawolves seek to defend their 2011 title.
In Satruday's early game, UAF spoiled a shutout bid by redshirt freshman Keegan Asmundson by scoring with five second left, leaving Canisius with a 3-1 victory over the Nanooks.
Asmundson made 33 saves in his college debut, including 15 in the third period. Officials had to review the late goal by UAF's Tyler Morley, which came after the Nanooks pulled their goaltender for an extra attacker.
Canisius led the entire way, gaining a 1-0 lead three minutes into the game on a goal by co-captain Torrey Lindsay.
About 11 minutes later, Preston Shupe, the team's other co-captain, capitalized on a UAF turnover for a 2-0 lead. A goal by Matt Grazen made it 3-0 in the second period.
UAF had two great chances to narrow the lead, but both times the Nanooks drew iron. Junior Colton Beck, who found himself in the slot uncontested late in the second period, hit the crossbar, and junior Cody Kunyk, who got a one-on-none breakaway six minutes into the third period, hit the left post.
The Nanooks (0-1-1) outshot Canisius 34-25. John Keeny made 22 saves in his first start for UAF.
Both teams were scoreless on the power play. UAF was 0-for-6 and the Griffins were 0-for-5.
By MATIAS SAARI
Daily News correspondent