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Resilient Sun Devils rally against Omaha, capture Desert Hockey Classic

Craig Morgan Avatar
January 7, 2024
Sun Devils men's team wins Desert Hockey Classic.

Game-winning goal scorer Kyle Smolen was in too great a rush to get to his postgame media interview. When asked, the freshman had no idea what his Sun Devils teammates had planned for a Saturday night celebration after their 2-1 overtime victory against Omaha in the Desert Hockey Classic championship game at Mullett Arena. 

Junior goaltender TJ Semptimphelter was so polished that he somehow emerged moments later, showered and wearing a suit for his interview and then a split celebration with the players and his family, in town from New Jersey.

ASU coach Greg Powers was just happy to raise a trophy in a tournament he had hosted four previous times without tasting the fruits of his labor. He wanted his team to bask in the moment, albeit briefly.

“It’s a big, big accomplishment for our players so we’re really proud of them,” he said. “They’re gonna go enjoy tonight and then we’ve got to get back to work with a big series ahead against Cornell.”

Such is the life of a Division I college hockey independent. The Sun Devils have lost just two games in regulation this season (to No. 8 Denver and No. 9 Providence), they’ve lost one more in overtime, and they haven’t lost since Nov. 26. They have won 11 games in regulation, five more in overtime, and five more in shootouts. 

In terms of success against PairWise Rankings opponents, the Sun Devils have defeated No. 8 Denver, No. 9 Providence, No. 27 Merrimack (twice), No. 21 Colorado College (twice), No. 28 Dartmouth (twice), No. 19 Cornell, and No. 23 Omaha. By winning the Desert Hockey Classic, they won back-to-back tournaments on back-to-back weekends on opposite ends of the country after capturing the inaugural Adirondack Winter Invitational in Lake Placid, New York one week ago.

It’s an oddity of college hockey that with such a résumé, ASU sits just 16th in the PairWise Rankings that determine the field of 16 for the NCAA Tournament. College coaches are every bit as protective of their loser points as NHL coaches. Because the Sun Devils have gone to overtime 11 times in 24 games, they are being docked percentages of their wins when this group of guys really should be rewarded for working so much extra time to achieve its goals.

No matter the circumstance, and no matter who is needed to step up in any given moment, this lunch-pail crew is finding ways to win.

“That’s just sort of been our identity all year long,” Semptimphelter said. “There’s no mountain too high for us to climb. We never really feel like we’re out of it.”

Sun Devils goalie TJ Semptimphelter allowed three goals in two games of the Desert Hockey Classic. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

That was the case on Saturday against Omaha. The two teams will share the same conference next season when the Sun Devils join the NCHC, but the Mavericks were a notch above ASU through two periods. They were big and physical in the first period and they enjoyed an inordinate amount of offensive zone time in the second period.

Semptimphelter (26 saves) was a rock in net but one bad read by ASU defenseman Josh Niedermayer allowed Coyotes prospect Tanner Ludtke to slip away on a breakaway and give the Mavs a 1-0 lead after one period.

Aside from wanting to win their own event, the Sun Devils knew just how important this game was to their NCAA hopes. It showed in the third period when they outshot Omaha 15-5.

Ryan O’Reilly got the equalizer — his third goal of the tournament — at 2:10 of the third period, but in spite of a hard push and a relentless power play that produced four shots on goal, ASU couldn’t get a much-needed regulation win. The Sun Devils needed their comfort zone — extra time — where they have found a way to win in some fashion on 10 of 11 occasions this season.

At the 1:43 mark of OT, college hockey’s No. 4 point producer, Lukas Sillinger, circled back behind the blue line with the puck while players changed. When he turned toward the benches, he was surprised to spot “kind of a perfect situation.” Smolen was streaking toward the Omaha zone, uncovered. Sillinger slipped a perfect pass between two Omaha defenders, right on the tape, and Smolen deked Mavericks goalie Simon Latkoczy to the ground before slipping the puck in the far side and setting off a raucous celebration..

“I saw the puck coming and I was like, ‘Just catch the pass,'” said Smolen, noting that this was the first overtime game-winner he had ever scored. “That’s the only thing you gotta do and you’ll figure it out after that. There’s no worse feeling in the world than the puck going past you on a B-way in overtime, but after that it was kind of just muscle memory. I have a go-to move and it ended up working out.”

No team in the nation has fewer losses than ASU with two months left in the regular season, but the Sun Devils will still have their backs against the wall again next weekend for a two-game home series rematch with Cornell, which ASU beat in the Lake Placid final. Even if the Sun Devils sweep that series, it will still be nip and tuck the rest of the season, or “Game 7 every night” as Powers puts it.

Powers said that he may even be forced to pull his goaltender earlier in the third period, if games are tied, to try and get regulation wins the rest of the season. It’s an insane situation, but it would be just another act for a team that has provided great on-ice theater all season.

“It’s playoff hockey,” Sillinger said. “We play every game like it’s our last and being an independent, it’s kind of that next win approach and it will be that the next week as well.”

Top and bottom photos of the ASU men’s hockey team celebrating its Desert Hockey Classic title courtesy off Sun Devil Athletics

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