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Sun Devil men's hockey midseason report: Flirting with an NCAA Tournament berth

Craig Morgan Avatar
December 21, 2023

When the Sun Devils men’s hockey team arrived home from Pennsylvania on Monday morning, both ice sheets at Mullett Arena were occupied. The Coyotes were practicing on the main ice. The Ottawa Senators were practicing on the community rink.

The Devils didn’t care. They had earned a break. After posting three wins and a tie in its past four road games at Colorado College and Robert Morris, ASU (13-3-4) sat No. 16 in the PairWise rankings that largely determine the NCAA Tournament field of 16 teams.

That standing won’t ensure that the Sun Devils make the tournament — unless every conference postseason tournament plays out according to script with the favorites winning — but ASU has put itself in position to climb a couple more notches and secure its second postseason appearance (it would have had another had COVID-19 not canceled the 2019-20 season).

“I really like where we’re at,” coach Greg Powers said. “We don’t feel like we’ve even come close to playing our best but we just have a group of kids that are finding ways to win.

“We’ve won just about every different way, whether it’s coming from behind or overtime or winning a lot of special teams battles. TJ [Semptimphelter] has been terrific, but we’ve really only needed our goalie to steal us one game — the second game at Colorado College. Other than that, they’ve been earned. We’re just playing good, sound winning hockey and that should translate into a really good second half.”

The Sun Devils won’t have as long a break as past years because they will compete in the inaugural Adirondack Winter Invitational from Dec. 28-29 in Lake Placid, New York; site of the 1980 Miracle on Ice. That said, Powers has made certain that his team and staff have time to refuel.

“We made it mandatory that nobody’s allowed at the rink,” Powers said. “Players aren’t allowed to go. Staff’s not allowed to go. Just enjoy home and enjoy family.

“Some guys went home for a couple days. Some guys just stayed. I know some families came out here just to get the nice weather but we’ll practice Friday, we’ll practice Saturday, I’m going to have the team to my house Saturday for a Christmas midseason party. We’ll give them Christmas Eve off, Christmas day off and then we’ll practice Tuesday and then we’re off to Lake Placid on Wednesday.”

As the Sun Devils break for the holiday, here’s a look at the season to date, and what lies ahead.

Goaltender TJ Semptimphelter is tied for 16th in NCAA Division I with a .918 save percentage, tied for fourth in wins (11) and tied for first in shutouts with three. (Getty Images)

Defense first

One of the main points of emphasis this season was tightening the defensive screws after ASU finished in the middle of the pack in goals allowed last season at 2.9 per game.

So far, so good. The Suns Devils are tied for 14th in the nation in goals against per game at 2.5. A big part of that has been the play of Semptimphelter, who again ranks among the nation’s leaders, but the Sun Devils have also been able to get backup Gibson Homer, a sophomore, four safer starts and he has delivered with a 1.9 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.

With new assistant coaches Albie O’Connell and Dana Borges, the Devils have also tweaked their defensive-zone systems to close on players faster and shut down plays faster.

“I think our five-on-five save percentage is second in the country, which is tremendous, but the goalies have had plenty of help from the guys around them,” Powers said.

“My goal at the start of the season was to get Gibby at least double-digit starts and I still think that’s possible. We’ll see how TJ continues to hold up. I really thought hard about putting Gibby in on Sunday at Robert Morris, but TJ was fresh. He didn’t see a lot of action on Saturday and he’s seen a lot less action this year than he did last year.”

Sun Devils captain Tyler Gratton has provided ASU with more grit and edge. (Getty Images)

A familiar identity

Whether in recruiting or via the transfer portal, the Sun Devils staff made a concerted effort last offseason to add players who brought toughness and tenacity to the lineup. Powers’ earliest Division I teams had a lot of nasty to them and it helped them swim in waters with teams that were more skilled.

“It’s not just the older guys who have brought that this year,” Powers said. “Cole Gordon is a prototypical bottom-six center. He’s big, heavy, he wins faceoffs and he’s great defensively. [Forward] Tony Achille is cracking the lineup now because he finishes every check and he knows what his role is; embraces that role and plays hard, plays with speed. Cole Helm, same thing.

“And then when you look at the older guys like Brian Chambers and Tyler Gratton, it’s up and down the lineup that we’ve been able to add that. I guess you could call it a quick fix.”

Sun Devils forward Matthew Kopperud is healthy again and, as a result, productive again.
Forward Matthew Kopperud (left) leads NCAA Division I with nine power-play goals. (Getty Images)

Sun Devils special teams

Matthew Kopperud’s biggest issue last season was health. He appeared in just 21 of ASU’s 39 games and rarely looked right, scoring just six goals and totaling 12 points.

“It was tough last year,” Kopperud said. “A lot of surgeries before the year, during the year but now I feel like I’m fully back to 100 percent. The last time I probably felt 100 percent was before my first surgery at 16 years old so in my senior year at 24, I finally feel like myself again.”

It has shown. Kopperud leads the nation in power-play goals and the Sun Devils power play is fifth in the nation at 28.4 percent.

“When you have a kid like Kopp that can bury it and then you have Lukas Sillinger on the other half wall and Timmy Lovell up top, it makes for a dangerous unit,” Powers said. “Timmy’s third in the nation for points by a D-man [21] and Silli is third in the country in overall points [26]. It’s a good recipe and that’s why we’re winning a lot of games.”

After a slow start, the Sun Devils penalty-killing unit has also taken a major step forward and now sits 23rd in the nation at 83.1 percent.

“We challenged the guys to do a better job,” Powers said. “We were having a lot of unlucky bounces on it and we needed more saves on it. It’s never really been structural, but the guys have really gotten it done and I think it’ll just continue to improve and hopefully finish in the top 15 in the country.”

The Sun Devils have gone to overtime nine times in 20 games. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

The overtime issue

Winning is the name of the game in every sport, but in college hockey, all wins are not equal. More to the point, the PairWise system does not reward a full win for overtime victories. That’s a problem for the Sun Devils, who lead the nation in overtime games.

It’s hard enough for an independent program to make the NCAA field of 16. It’s happened twice in the past 30 years (ASU did it in 2019). The Suns Devils have made it harder on themselves by leaving some points on the board.

The Sun Devils went 0-1-1 at Miami (Ohio) early this season, blowing a 4-1, third-period lead and losing in overtime before tying the RedHawks the following night. They beat lowly Stonehill in overtime early in November, and they tied Dartmouth (No. 31 in PairWise) twice on home ice earlier this month.

“You’ve got to make hay when you can and the best way to do it is against the best teams,” Powers said. “We’ve done it so far with Merrimack and Colorado College and Denver and Providence. What’s hurt us is just not enough of those wins came in regulation. That’s why we’re sitting at No. 16 instead of maybe No. 8.

“But we’re well within striking distance. You just have to win. You know teams in all the leagues are going to continue to beat up on each other. If we can just go duplicate the win total on the back half that we did in the front half, I think we’re gonna get in.”

Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York will be the site of the inaugural Adirondack Winter Invitational with No. 13 ranked ASU, No. 17 Cornell, Clarkson and No. 11 UMass-Amherst.

Tournament time

The Sun Devils’ NCAA Tournament fate could well be determined in the next four games. Arizona State is one of four teams that will take part in the inaugural Adirondack Winter Invitational in Lake Placid, New York from Dec. 29-20.

The three other teams in that event are all ranked among the top in the current PairWise. UMass-Amherst is No. 9. Cornell is No. 21. Clarkson is No. 28.

Following that event, the Sun Devils host the annual Desert Hockey Classic with UMass-Lowell (No. 38), Omaha (No. 22) and Harvard (No. 46).

“We want to go win a couple trophies,” Powers said. “Our guys don’t get to play in a conference tournament so we’ve had to treat these like a conference tournament. But what it means from a PairWise standpoint goes without saying. If we can get a couple of trophies, we’re going to be in a really, really good position.”

To put it succinctly: If the Sun Devils can get a split in the Adirondack tournament and then win their own tournament, that could set them up for a spot in the tournament they want most.

Top photo of the Sun Devils men’s hockey team via Getty Images

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