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Oceanside factor energizes Sun Devils in season-opening win

Craig Morgan Avatar
October 3, 2021

I had about 50 minutes to get from the Coyotes’ preseason game against the Anaheim Ducks at Gila River Arena in Glendale, to Arizona State’s season opener against UMass Lowell in Tempe on Saturday. The drive took only about 25 minutes, but I didn’t account for another factor: the Oceanside factor.

As I approached the arena, cars stretched north and south of the parking lot along McClintock Drive. The main lot was full and the dirt lot in front of the arena did not look promising so I parked at a nearby business, walked a half mile, and reached the entrance with about 10 minutes until puck drop.

Realizing I had to move quickly, I approached a man standing near the front door to ask where I could pick up my media credential. He looked up from his phone and grinned. It was Shane Doan. Doan had been in El Paso, Texas to help promote the Coyotes’ Kraft Hockeyville game against the Dallas Stars on Sunday, but he caught a flight home on Saturday evening because he wasn’t going to miss this. His son, Josh, was playing his first collegiate game.

“I’m just an excited dad tonight,” he said. “Just a spectator like everybody else.”

Doan had a lot of company. The only ASU games I have been able to cover in the past were one game in the Devils’ inaugural Division I season, and last season’s exhibition games against the United States National Team Development Program when COVID-19 protocols severely limited the number of spectators allowed in the arena.

Oceanside is an intimate venue anyway, but on Saturday, it was perhaps the hottest scene in town. The stands were packed, the viewing spaces along the glass were packed, the press box was packed, and hockey celebrities like Doan and Paul Bissonnette turned out to heighten the arena’s it factor.

“I came to check out Josh’s first game,” Bissonnette said. “That was a blast.”

It was, but it took multiple Sun Devil rallies to usher in this important season in style. UMass Lowell came in ranked No. 22 in the nation. Its presence on the opening weekend schedule was a deliberate attempt by ASU coach Greg Powers to teach his team an important early lesson.

The River Hawks were big, bruising, hard on pucks, and at 5-on-5, they outplayed the Sun Devils all night, sustaining cycles in the offensive zone, limiting ASU’s offensive-zone time and outmuscling the Devils.

“They’re physical, hard, heavy on sticks,” Powers said. “This is a great series for us to play a team like that early to set the tone for how we’re going to have to play.”

Three times, the River Hawks took leads at 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. Three times, ASU battled back, thanks to a superlative power play that scored four goals on six opportunities.

Two of those goals came from sophomore Matthew Kopperud, who also had a torrid start in his freshman season with 12 goals in his first 16 games. The Sun Devils made a concerted effort to find Kopperud in his spot, and he scored twice off backdoor blasts from the right circle. 

”I like shooting it from there but I’ll shoot it from anywhere,” Kopperud quipped.

ASU took advantage of a five-minute power play late in the game to score twice and put the game away on goals from Michigan transfer Jack Becker and Boston College transfer Tim Lovell. Junior transfer Ben Kraws (29 saves) filled in well in net for Cole Brady, who was ill, but the Sun Devils also got contributions from their heralded freshman class.

Doan had three assists, Jack Jensen scored a gorgeous goal off a 2-on-1, Ethan Szmagaj had an assist and Ty Murchison had three blocked shots on the back end.  

Sun Devils freshman Jack Jensen celebrates his second-period goal with Paul Bissonnette pounding the glass in support. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

The win improved ASU to 26-5-3 in its last 34 home games at Oceanside, leading grad student Johnny Walker to wax appreciative of the only home arena he will ever know as a collegiate player.

“You saw how excited we get when we score,” he said. “It’s awesome to be able to build off that crowd. I think the (new) rink is going to be great next year, but we’re going to miss playing at Oceanside for sure so we’re going to take advantage of it.”

It was a rough year for ASU, playing an all-road schedule last season in the Big Ten. A lot of players suffered injuries, a lot of players had down years and four of the seniors came back when the NCAA granted another year of eligibility because they didn’t want last season to be their last memory of Sun Devil hockey. 

“All the boys wanted redemption,” Walker said. “We play so well here and it was infectious. You saw freshmen step up and feel that energy. Doaner, Szmegs played really well and obviously Jenner scored, too, so it just bled through the whole locker room.”

Powers has talked often about using this final season at Oceanside as a springboard into the program’s new arena, which will be ready for the start of the 2021-22 season. But after a win in the season opener, he waxed nostalgic about the arena that laid Sun Devil hockey’s foundation.

“We had such a tough difficult year that we want to embrace the last 20 games in this building,” Powers said. “I joke about the building and poke fun at it, but at the end of the day, we owe everything that we are to this place and the people that run this place. 

“They’re great people. They do a great job to put us on the ice and we love it. We love Oceanside. We’ve got 19 left here. We’ve got to protect our home ice and give this place back what it has given us.”

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