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Sun Devil hockey faces critical weekend series at No. 1 Minnesota State

Craig Morgan Avatar
January 27, 2022

There’s no way to sugarcoat the importance of the Arizona State men’s hockey team’s series at No. 1 Minnesota State on Friday and Saturday. With one win, the Sun Devils (15-12) could be on the bubble of NCAA Tournament contention. With two wins, they’d probably secure a safe standing. With two losses, their postseason hopes will die.

ASU coach Greg Powers isn’t hiding that reality from his team. 

“You have to embrace it,” he said Tuesday, a day before the Sun Devils departed for Mankato, Minnesota where the high temperature on Friday is forecast to be a balmy 11°. “You can’t can’t sweep this under the carpet. We know where we are and all the players know where we are in the rankings and what we can accomplish by going up and having success against arguably the best team in the country. 

“I think you bring it to the forefront, which we have, and you showcase it. We’re going up there with a tremendous opportunity and you can feel the excitement that our guys have.”

ASU currently sits in a tie for 21st in the PairWise rankings that go a long way toward determining the 16-team NCAA field. Powers knows how the PairWise math works. He can tell you before every game what the Suns Devils can accomplish with a win, or suffer with a loss, and he is always right.

With a sweep, Powers believes the Sun Devils could climb as many as 10 PairWise spots. With one win, he thinks they could climb as many as five. Neither will be easy, however. The Mavericks are 12-1 at home this season, they are ranked No. 1 in the poll they are No. 2 in the PairWise rankings and they are riding an 11-game home winning streak. Their only loss at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center came on Oct. 9 when they fell to No. 6 St. Cloud State, 3-1, on the back end of a series split.

Minnesota State (23-5) is third in the nation in goals per game (4.11), second in the nation in goals against per game (1.25), 10th in power play percentage (23.1), 11th in penalty-killing percentage (86.7), and first in faceoff winning percentage (58.4).

Junior forward Nathan Smith leads the nation in points (39), senior forward Julian Napravnik is tied for fourth (32), and senior goaltender Dryden McKay is second in the nation in goals against average (1.24); tied for sixth in the nation in save percentage (.931). 

“Looking at the numbers, you know they have a good goalie right off the bat,” ASU forward Colin Theisen said. “We’re gonna have to get bodies in front, pucks to the net and create that chaos in order to pop some in on him. 

“They play fast, they play hard and they work with each other really good. We know they’re gonna back pressure so we’ve got to play with pace. We know that they like to cycle the puck, they’re big and fast down low in their O-zone, and then they have a good D-zone structure so we’ve got to be safe with the puck.”

Arizona State junior goaltender Ben Kraws stopped 70 of 74 shots in three road wins at RIT and Northeastern. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

ASU had plenty of time to prepare for the Mavericks after sweeping a road series against RIT on Jan. 14 and 15. The Sun Devils’ exhibition series with Lindenwood from Jan. 21-22 in Tempe was canceled due to COVID concerns so they have been able to zero in on the task ahead.

“Last week, it was just making sure we got everybody rested and healthy,” Powers said. “We had some bumps and bruises when we got back so it was just getting everybody back to really good health. 

“We did an intrasquad scrimmage on Friday, and the pace and the energy was really high; it was really good. You wanted to get their competitive juices kind of going again. And then (Monday and Tuesday) it was dialed back into everything that we did so well on those last three games: playing fast in transition, forecheck details, how we want to play, how we want to implement our systems. The last two days have been pretty detailed.”

The Sun Devils won’t have injured forward Demetrios Koumontzis (lower body) for the series, but everyone else is healthy. ASU will also be riding a season-high three-game road winning streak, which is one more win than they had managed in their previous 10 road games this season.

“Obviously, we need to win some more on the road to get in and we know that because you get so much more credit for winning on the road,” Powers said. “But it’s good for the confidence. I think the guys, you know, the way they ended that last road trip, are feeling really good about themselves right now and they should be.

“I’m excited to see them play in a really intense environment where there’s a lot on the line.”

Theisen said the team feels prepared for the challenge.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to position ourselves to get in the tournament and once you’re in the tournament you’re going to play teams like this all the way through,” he said. “Getting a good weekend against this team is going to be huge for us and leading up to it we’re just looking at as like, they’re the number one team so we’ve got to be sharp; we’ve got to be ready.”

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