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The Arizona State hockey team touched down at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Wednesday afternoon with a difficult and key stretch of the season staring them right in the face. If you discount two exhibition games against Lindenwood (which will move to Division I for the start of the 2022–23 season) later this month, the Sun Devils will play their next seven games on the road where they are just 2-6 this season.
The competition doesn’t help either. ASU opens a two-game series at Agganis Arena (pictured above) against storied Boston University (7-9-3), which has struggled this season, but has also faced key injuries with Luke Tuch and Jay O’Brien missing significant time early in the year.
Rather than coming home after that series and risking the increasing amount of flight delays and cancellations due to COVID, the Sun Devils will stay across the Charles River in Cambridge and practice at Agganis. On Thursday, they announced the addition of a single game at No. 11 Northeastern (13-4-1) on Tuesday. After that game, they will bus nearly six hours to Rochester, New York for a series with RIT (9-7-2) from Jan. 14-15. After Lindenwood, it’s a two-game date (Jan. 28-29) at Minnesota State (18-4), the top-ranked team in the nation in both the PairWise Rankings and the overall rankings.
“It’s good to have that sort of momentum heading out on the road,” said ASU coach Greg Powers, whose team just completed a two-game sweep of No. 9 Cornell to climb to No. 25 in the PairWise Rankings that go a long way toward determining the 16-team NCAA Tournament field. “To be honest, it’s really not that long of a climb to get in. Some of the teams in front of us are going to lose and if you look at the points from 18 to 25, it’s a logjam right now.
“Now we have to go out and win on the road. That’s the difference in our PairWise right now, but we’re 10-4 at home, which is a great record, we’ve won five of our last six and seven of nine so we’re playing really well.”
The Sun Devils are also healthy as they begin this critical stretch, and that includes the health of perhaps the program’s greatest icon.
Johnny Walker is back
This isn’t how it was supposed to end for Johnny Walker, the program’s all-time points leader and arguably its most iconic face to date (along with Joey Daccord). Walker racked up 60 goals and 96 points in 100 games over his first three collegiate seasons, but COVID, an all-road schedule in 2020-21, and an assortment of injuries have limited him to 30 games and 23 points (eight goals) over the past two seasons.
When Walker took advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility granted players due to COVID, he hoped to put all of the trials behind him, but he missed nearly two months with a lower-body injury before returning to the lineup against Cornell.
He had a pair of assists in that series and Powers saw signs of the old Walker, who is still rounding into game shape.
“I threw him right into the fire and he had a couple of really nice points,” Powers said. “Overall, he made a positive impact both nights. He was good defensively. He made one hell of a pass through neutral ice to put us up 2-0, he hit a crossbar in kind of a typical J-Walks toe-drag ripper from between the hashes, and then he just missed some really good opportunities on the power play.
“He was back to getting pucks on net and being dangerous to the point where the other team has to respect when he’s out there because he just slows the game down and he creates.”
There are 15 regular-season games remaining in Walker’s collegiate career, and possibly more if the Sun Devils make the NCAA Tournament. It’s unclear what will come next for Walker, although he should at least get an opportunity with an AHL or ECHL team unless he wants to play in Europe.
The hope for everyone is that he goes out with a bang and leads the Sun Devils back to the tournament.
“When you score as much as he scores, somebody will give him an opportunity,” Powers said. “It’s going to be on him to just be at its healthiest when we’re done here. We all know Johnny can do it so he’s got these (15) games to hopefully get us some wins and really get in the best shape he’s been in over the last year and a half. If he does, he’ll give himself a chance and I really hope he does.”
Cole Brady’s improvement
Offense hasn’t been a problem for ASU this season. The Sun Devils are fifth in the nation in goals with 79, 11th in goals per game at 3.59, and 20th in power-play percentage at 22.
Defense and goaltending have been consistent issues. The Sun Devils rank 50th (out of 59 Division I teams) in goals against per game at 3.68, they have allowed more shots on goal (780) than any team in the nation, and their team save percentage of .896 ranks 35th.
When Cole Brady finished last season on a torrid run, the Sun Devils hoped that he would carry it over into the 2021-22 season and solidify his spot as the starting goaltender. Another bout of mononucleosis and some uneven play early derailed those hopes, forcing Powers to turn to transfer Ben Kraws for 14 games this season (Brady has played in 11).
As the Sun Devils brace for the most important part of their schedule, Powers is hoping that Brady’s effort in a relief appearance at Colorado College and a two-game sweep of Cornell was a sign that he is back in top form. Brady stopped 79 of 83 shots against CC and Cornell (.952 save percentage) to improve his season record to 5-5 with a 3.68 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. With 62 saves against Cornell, Brady reached 700 career saves, the fourth most in program history.
“Cornell is a top-10 team,” Powers said. “They had a couple pushes and he stood tall, made some big saves and got us two big wins. Hopefully he can get on a roll. We need one of them to give us really good consistency back there and then we think we can win a ton of games.”
Brady will get the start in the first game at BU on Friday.
Sophomore Matthew Kopperud is tied for ninth in the nation in goals with 12. He clearly loves scoring goals (who doesn’t?) so it was hilarious to listen to his postgame comments and Powers’ reply after Kopperud scored what proved to be the game-winning goal early in the third period of the first win over Cornell.
Josh Doan is tied with Denver’s Massimo Rizzo and Bowling Green’s Austen Swankler for the NCAA freshman lead in points with 21. When Coyotes senior director of hockey development Matt Shott passed away from cancer on Dec. 19, Doan announced on Twitter (through the team) that he would be honoring his former coach.
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