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When the Sun Devils reached the midpoint of their season last weekend in New Hampshire, a casual glance showed a 9-10 team that was 2-8 on the road (1-0 in neutral-site games) and now sits No. 27 in the PairWise Rankings.
The NCAA Tournament field of 16 felt far away.
A closer inspection reveals just how close ASU is to postseason contention, however. Of the Devils’ eight road losses, three have come in overtime (Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji State, New Hampshire) and two more came in the final two minutes of regulation, one with 16.7 remaining in regulation at Clarkson, the other with 1:58 remaining at Denver.
There has also been controversy. The Sun Devils had a goal disallowed late in regulation of the OT loss at Duluth, and officials simply blew the call on Denver’s game-winning goal with 1:58 remaining on Dec. 2.
Not to beat a dead horse, but this is what officials decided was conclusive evidence that it was Tim Lovell's glove and not a DU player's high stick that led to the GWG in Game 1 of the series. Unreal that they overturned the high-stick/no-goal call on the ice.
Terrible call. https://t.co/eOPs5XRQkI pic.twitter.com/2hwSmnDxRR
— Craig Morgan (@CraigSMorgan) December 5, 2022
“With a little more experience, some bounces, some luck or some execution, we’re literally 12 to 14 spots higher right now,” ASU coach Greg Powers said. “This isn’t like last year where we were making mistakes in the first half of games that were costing us. These are last-minute last-second, overtime situations where we’re just not executing right now. But usually the way it works is over the course of the season, when you can draw on these experiences, it will balance out so we’ve just got to stick with it.”
The schedule works in ASU’s favor. When the Sun Devils return from their holiday break later this month, 16 of their final 20 games (including the next 10) will be played at Mullett Arena where the Devils are 6-2 this season.
“We are absolutely within striking distance,” Powers said. “It is beyond doable.”
Before the Sun Devils resume their schedule with a two-game series against Boston College on Dec. 30 and 31, here’s a look at the positives, the areas for improvement, and the home stretch.
3 Sun Devils’ positives
TJ Semptimphelter: Semptimphelter has slipped just outside the NCAA’s top 20 in save percentage at .918, but that stat does not tell the tale of the workhorse goaltender’s season. Semptimphelter is tied for the NCAA lead in games (19), first in saves (583), second in minutes (1,121), tied for third in shutouts (three), tied for 10th in wins (10), and if the NCAA tracked goals saved above expected, he would likely lead the pack by a wide margin.
“He’s been a rock for us,” Powers said. “I know there’s people that think that I’m crazy for starting him every game, but he can handle it. He’s been consistent and I don’t think anybody can dispute that he would be our midseason MVP.”
With so little travel over the second half of the season, it’s fair to expect Powers to ride his sophomore goalie down the stretch — especially with the team needing wins desperately. Of the newcomers in ASU’s ranks, Semptimphelter tops the list of high performers.
Robert Mastrosimone: The senior forward leads the Sun Devils with 21 points, he is tied with Lukas Sillinger for the team-lead in goals with six, and he has shown a flair for the dramatic. Mastrosimone’s two game-winning goals this season have come in arguably the team’s two biggest wins. He scored the game-winner as ASU rallied from an early two-goal deficit to beat North Dakota at the US Hockey Hall of Fame Game in Las Vegas, and he scored the game-winner in OT as ASU stunned current No. 1 Minnesota.
“I think he leads the country in penalties drawn and that’s an unbelievable stat,” Powers said. “He works and works and works. He never gives up on plays. His second and third efforts on pucks are better than anybody we’ve ever had in this program and that’s why he draws so many penalties.
“I think he can manage pucks better than he has. He’s the one that gave the puck away to UNH when we were up two that got them going so he needs to know when to live to fight another day, managing pucks. I think if he can get those out of his system, he’s one of the best players in college hockey, and he’s gonna give himself a really good chance to play at the highest level in the world.”
Defense: Defending better was a major focus this season. ASU allowed 3.5 goals per game last season, which was tied for the seventh worst mark in the nation. This season the Sun Devils are allowing 2.8, which is tied for 27th best in the nation.
Semptimphelter has been a big reason for that improvement because the Devils are still allowing 34.1 shots per game — the seventh highest mark in the nation — but they are also defending seam passes and the net front better than they did last season. The penalty-killing unit has also improved after a slow start. It is now 20th in the nation at 83.1 percent.
3 Sun Devils’ areas for improvement
Discipline: ASU is averaging 15.3 penalty minutes per game, which is tied for the third highest mark in the nation. That time is shorthanded and is taking away from the team’s ability to go on offense and it is eating up the energy of valuable offensive players such as Josh Doan, who has become an elite penalty killer, but is spending too much of his time on that unit, not leaving enough for offense.
Defenseman Ty Murchison has been a repeat offender. He is second in the nation with 59 penalty minutes and he has three five-minute majors, including a critical one late in the second period of game 2 at New Hampshire that allowed the Wildcats to tie the game before the intermission.
“He’s got one point, he’s second in the nation in penalty minutes and he’s minus three on the season,” Powers said. “I don’t think he or any of us wanted that to be the stat line at this point in the season, but I think it’s important to note that he gets really hard minutes. He gets the majority of the D-zone starts and he’s the one we’re matching up against Logan Cooley and Matthew Knies because he’s a kid that can skate and defend those guys; he’s a really good player.
“He just has to mature as a player and understand when to take a log off the fire. That’s going to be our focus with him is to really work with him on playing on the edge but not going over the edge. Right now, he’s just going over that edge way too often. He’s just young and he hasn’t matured as a player yet, but we’ll get him there.”
Special teams: The Sun Devils power play and penalty killing units have been fine this season. In fact, the PK has been elite over the past month, but Powers wants to see less of that unit (see above) and he wants both units to dial it in at critical moments in games; particularly the power play.
“It’s had chances to win us games and it hasn’t done it,” Powers said. “At Clarkson, we were tied 1-1 with four minutes left and we got a power play and we didn’t score. We ended up losing the game with 16 seconds left. At Denver, it’s 2-2 and we get a power play with eight minutes left, we don’t score and we end up losing the game with two minutes left.
“Last weekend at New Hampshire, we tie it up at 3-3, we get a power play and we don’t score, then they score so when we got another power play in the last five minutes at a media timeout, I called them over and I said, “This is the pressure you guys asked for and this pressure is actually a privilege. You have to deliver. You’ve got to go put a puck in the net when we need them most’ and they did. That was the first power-play goal that we’ve scored all season where it’s been clutch; in a crunch time moment.”
Road wins: Again, with a little luck and some different calls the Sun Devils could have a respectable road record. That aside, ASU has to find a way to play better in its final four road games at Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Anchorage. Wins in those locations will ease the burden at Mullett Arena where the Sun Devils will face some stiff competition including No. 21 BC, No. 16 Michigan Tech, No. 20 Minnesota State and No. 19 RIT.
The home stretch
Powers thinks that the Sun Devils can make the NCAA Tournament by going 15-5 in their final 20 games. It’s a tall order given the level of competition, but ASU has been a very good home team over its eight-season history.
“We’ve done enough to put ourselves in a position to get in,” Powers said. “The next eight games are against teams that are in front of us in the PairWise. If we just take care of home ice, we’re going to be on the inside.
“Is it frustrating that we don’t have 14 wins instead of nine because of how close we are to having 14? Yes, but that’s why we’re so high in the PairWise is because we’re getting all these games to overtime. This schedule has set us up to do get in.”
The Sun Devils will have to do it minus some key personnel. While forward Jack Jensen will return to the lineup after the break, forwards Charlie Schoen and Jackson Niedermayer will miss the rest of the season with injuries that will require surgery and forward Matthew Kopperud could miss some games with a minor procedure that he is having over the break.
The Sun Devils will return to campus on Dec. 21 and start practicing on Dec. 22, giving them a solid week of practice before the games begin. That said, Powers thinks the rest is as vital before embarking on a critical stretch of games.
“They need it. I need it. We all need it,” he said Tuesday. “I’m just coming in [Tuesday and Wednesday] and that’s probably it. I won’t be back in again until they get here. This is huge to recharge and refocus before we dial it in again.”
Top photo via Getty Images