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Five minutes into the Arizona State men’s hockey team’s game against Northern Michigan at Mullett Arena on Saturday, the Sun Devils had already surrendered a handful of odd-man rushes. The only thing that saved them were a couple of terrific saves from well-positioned goaltender TJ Semptimphelter and the Wildcats’ inability to hit the net on point-blank chances.
Those missed early opportunities were costly. NMU rarely sniffed the net for the rest of the game. ASU limited the Wildcats to 17 shots on goal in a 5-1 victory that completed the Sun Devils’ second straight two-game sweep to open the 2023-24 season. The Devils held the Wildcats to three goals and 42 shots in the series. One weekend earlier, Northern Michigan had scored 10 goals on 73 shots in a two-game series against No. 11 Minnesota Duluth.
Coach Greg Powers talked all offseason about the need for ASU to get back to the hard-to-play-against identity that defined the early years of the program’s move to Division I. He thought that the Sun Devils had become a little too unbalanced toward the skill side, so the coaching staff went about rectifying that through recruiting, the transfer portal, and subtle tweaks in the way that the Devils play.
If four games are any indication, ASU has achieved the desired transformation.
|Statistic||Number||NCAA Division I rank|
|Goals against per game||1.3||3|
|Shots against per game||26.3||18|
|Team save percentage||.952||1|
“You can see how quickly we’re killing plays in the D-zone and transitioning out of our D-zone,” Powers said after Saturday’s game. “We had a really disciplined F3 (third forward into the offensive zone) all weekend. They had a couple two-on-ones in the first period and it was just a result of our F3 losing track of their wide guy; not tracking with them.”
Powers said that he and assistants Alex Hicks, Albie O’Connell and Dana Borges made some subtle changes this offseason to the way that the Sun Devils defend.
“Albie and Dana came in with some great ideas about tweaking our D-zone play a little bit. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s all about killing plays as fast as you can and getting it going the other way,” he said. “We’re really committed to having good sticks; no sticks in the air in the D-zone. The sticks are on the ice, taking away passing lanes and shooting lanes. We have good defensive habits and we’ve really practiced it exhaustively.”
Exhaustive is a good way to describe the way the Sun Devils play in their own zone. No offensive foray goes uncontested. There are always bodies, sticks and sheer will power in opposition.
Defending well and getting out of the D-zone is half the battle, however. The Sun Devils have also excelled in the possession game. Save for some hiccups and turnovers, their transition game was effective through the neutral zone against NMU, their cycle game in the offensive zone wore down the Wildcats defense, and the power play continued to click.
ASU’s man-advantage went 2 for 8 against Northern Michigan, including forward Matthew Kopperud’s program record 26th power-play goal, which broke Johnny Walker’s previous record.
“It feels good to beat Johnny Walker,” Kopperud said. “He’s a close friend of mine, and I know I’m going to get a text from him pretty soon.”
In four games against then-No. 15 Merrimack and NMU, the Sun Devils are averaging 3.3 goals per game (T-21st in NCAA) and the power play is clicking at a 25 percent clip (tied for 10th).
“It’s all about just getting pucks behind them and playing down below the dots,” Powers said. “We’ve worked a lot on three things. Spacing, attacking the dots and a lot of wall work because 80 percent of the game is played on the wall. We’re really good on the wall right now, we’re attacking the dots offensively and it’s really hard to defend.”
ASU’s 4-0 start has elevated the program to No. 13 in the latest U.S. College Hockey Online poll. That is the program’s highest ranking in nearly four years, and just four notches off the highest rung that the Sun Devils have ever occupied (No. 9. on Feb. 17, 2020).
It’s hard not to think about what this program might have achieved this season had Coyotes draft pick Josh Doan not elected to turn pro after his sophomore season, or if forward Robert Mastrosimone had elected to return for his final season of eligibility instead of accepting an AHL-only contract.
As a payback from other DI programs for all of the travel that the Sun Devils endured in the early years of the program, ASU has 26 home games this season. By contrast, the Sun Devils have just 12 games away from Mullett Arena, starting with this weekend’s first-ever meeting with future conference opponent Miami (Ohio) on Friday and Saturday at Goggin Ice Center. The RedHawks are 3-1.
This is the Devils’ final season as an independent before joining the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The possibility of ASU entering the nation’s best conference fresh off its second NCAA Tournament berth (it would have earned a third had COVID-19 not canceled the 2019-20 season) is looking like more than a pipe dream.
“We’re not gonna be able to hide from anybody any more,” Powers said. “The expectation is to play in the tournament this year. It always is and we’ve done it twice with, to be very honest, a lot less than we have in that room now. I have liked this team since the middle of the summer. There’s something different about them. They smell different. They act different. They’re a really good, tight-knit group.
“Even in our first game, we had a bad start, but there was never panic. There was always belief and we found a way to win. It’s just a really good veteran group. They work. It’s that simple. We work way harder than we did last year.”
Top photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics
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